A Christmastime staple, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a rare film which has withstood the test of time and continues to touch millions of people through its themes, boundless appeal, and emotional power. Placed alongside such movies as Miracle on 34th Street or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, It’s a Wonderful Life is not exactly a typical Christmas movie since only its finale happens on Christmas Eve and it has nothing to do with Santa Claus or gift giving. Nevertheless, it encapsulates the true spirit of the holiday: the value of family and friends, and the importance of giving rather than receiving. On top of this, It’s a Wonderful Life can be watched any time of the year because of its feel-good themes and the message it conveys about the significance of a single human soul.
The story kicks off on Christmas Eve, as a chorus line of prayers are heard coming from the small town of Bedford Falls pleading for the angels to assist the despairing George Bailey (Stewart). The unsung hero of Bedford Falls, George was anxious to travel the world and head to University when he was a young man, but was forced to relinquish his dreams and manage his late father’s business to ensure that it won’t fall into the hands of wealthy schemer Mr. Potter (Barrymore). George has always acted in the interests of others before serving himself, and in his adult life he marries the beautiful Mary (Reed) and has a handful of wonderful children. However, financial problems and personal issues suddenly begin to mount, overwhelming George and plunging him into a tragic abyss of despondency. Enter George’s guardian angel Clarence (Travers), who is sent from heaven to heighten the depressed man’s spirits. In order to achieve this end, Clarence shows George what the world would have been like if he had never existed.
The first two-thirds of It’s a Wonderful Life are spent in flashback, with Clarence learning about George’s background and seeing the events leading up to his suicide contemplation. Such a device is a structural masterstroke; it allows a chance for viewers to see George’s past and it permits room for George’s character to be meticulously developed while the knowledge of his depression sits at the back of our mind. Conveying enough material to constitute a separate movie on its own, Capra accommodated the full breadth of George’s existence and treated it with the care it deserved. We become immersed in George’s existence and we fall in love with the man, and it seems impossible that anything could threaten to destroy his life. This kind of gentle, enthralling character development is gratifying and essential, letting us see what’s at stake when Clarence at long last travels down to earth to meet George. And since we grow to love George so much, the climax is all the more poignant (almost unbearably so).
It’s a Wonderful Life is such an effective feel-good movie because it asserts the notion that everyone, regardless of how insignificant they may seem, has the capacity to make a difference. Life is described as “God’s greatest gift“, and the film delivers the message that worldly riches mean nothing compared to love, family, friends, honesty and integrity; qualities which are far more valuable than other fleeting items of value which are so often held in higher regard. All of this converges for the goosebump-inducing finale which never fails to leave this reviewer a blubbering mess. Anybody who isn’t moved by the flick’s final few minutes should wonder what the heck is wrong with them. Additionally, It’s a Wonderful Life is so often referred to as cheesy and sentimental, but it’s surprisingly dark at times. The imminent lead-up to George’s depression is heart-wrenching in how bleak it is, and George’s lurid odyssey through Pottersville – a community in which he was never born – contains noir-ish traces, as it’s realistically gloomy.
With Capra having made the most of his estimated $3 million budget, It’s a Wonderful Life is a technically impressive picture indeed. The fictional town of Bedford Falls seems completely real, as Capra’s crew constructed an elaborate main street consisting of dozens of buildings and stores. It feels lived-in and real, not like something situated on a studio back-lot. Additionally, filming took place during summer months, meaning that snow had to be artificially created. Fake snow often fails to convince, but every flake of snow in It’s a Wonderful Life looks authentic. If anything is to be criticised (though perhaps that’s too strong of a word), it’s that there are a few technical faults, like a wide shot not precisely matching a close-up. But such shortcomings don’t matter at all, as Capra’s direction is stunning. His sense of pacing is magnificent, and each shot is infused with enthralling visual flair. And while the film is vehemently a drama, gentle humour is scattered throughout, making the film even more of a delight.
While Frank Capra and his team of credited screenwriters deserve some of the recognition for It’s a Wonderful Life‘s brilliance, it’s James Stewart’s immaculate performance that truly makes the film work. Stewart infused George Bailey with a deft mixture of innocence and veracity, not to mention humanity and fallibility that has viewers rooting for him from the outset. Stewart fits the role like a glove – he’s amiable and convincing, and his desperation and despair is increasingly apparent when he’s submerged into the vision of Pottersville. Equally excellent is Donna Reed in the role of Mary. Reed wasn’t Capra’s first choice, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, as she embodies the sweetness that was required to capture George’s heart. Meanwhile, as George’s guardian angel, Henry Travers is completely charming. The rest of the supporting cast is just as excellent – Lionel Barrymore’s performance as the wicked Potter is full of cunning and malice, while Thomas Mitchell was a great pick as the lovable (albeit incompetent) Uncle Billy. Capra never allowed a faulty moment of acting to sneak into his picture.
With It’s a Wonderful Life‘s strong reputation and almost unanimous acclaim, it’s difficult to believe that it wasn’t a hit during its theatrical release. Reviews were mixed and the box office earnings were underwhelming, dooming Capra’s newly established production company. It was nominated for a few Academy Awards, but won nothing. Subsequently, It’s a Wonderful Life fell into relative obscurity until the picture’s copyright expired and it entered the public domain, meaning that television stations could play it ad nauseum without having to pay royalties. Thus, it was used as a time-filler for the Christmas season, allowing it to be rediscovered by a whole new generation. At last, reviews were almost uniformly positive and It’s a Wonderful Lifebecame bestowed with the love and acclaim that it always deserved. Indeed, if It’s a Wonderful Life was never born, the world would have been worse off for it.