It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is one of those films that holds a special place in the hearts of millions, myself among them. I’ll never forget watching it one Christmas night on the floor of my paternal grandfather’s den, he in his recliner, my cousins and myself on our bellies. Implausibly, I was allowed to stay and watch it while my parents took my brothers home (we lived probably twenty or thirty minutes away at the time, and my mom loathed the inefficiency of multiple trips anywhere—a thrifty trait I have inherited), and my dad came and picked me up afterwards. I was happy and utterly exhausted, but I’ll never forget that good old mom made me take a bath anyway, even though I could barely keep my eyes open.
Ask anyone who has seen this film, especially in childhood, and they’ll have a similar story. Ponty relates his own tale in this wonderful review, and it’s something that contributes to the timeless and heartwarming quality of the flick. It’s a Wonderful Life is not just a movie, but an experience, something shared across generations, and indelibly linked, for as long as film as a medium exists, to Christmas and family and love.
With that, here is Ponty’s review of 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life:
I really hope this film is allowed to play this Christmas, for the younger generation who will have missed its delights or for those in general who might not have got around to watching it yet. You may wonder why I have questioned its screening. Well, the offence culture seems to be getting worse every day so you know someone, somewhere will have picked up some slight against it. ‘It’s too white!’ they’ll whine. ‘No diversity!’ they’ll screech. ‘The snow is white!’
Tina and I watched a Christmas film the other day that came with 4, yes 4, trigger warnings – violence, foul language, sexual content and alcohol use. The violence was a little playful fencing and a pretty pansy bar fight in which one punch was thrown. The foul language was one character saying ‘bugger off!’ The sexual content was a few kisses (pretty much the given for a romantic Christmas film) and the alcohol use was, prepare for this, characters drinking wine. It’s a good job these warnings were up because without them, Tina and I would have recoiled in shock (that was sarcasm, by the way).
Getting far away from the snowflakery of modern life, I’m chuffed to be given the chance to review this Capra classic. It holds some fond memories for me, being one of the films that my dad and I watched together at the cinema. Dad bonded well with my brother and foster brother because they were both sporty types but struggled with me at times because, believe it or not, I was quiet and reserved back then. In films, we bonded and when we found out the Manchester Playhouse, an arthouse theatre in the city, was screening It’s a Wonderful Life, we jumped at the chance to finally watch it on the big screen. In fact, that was the first time I had ever seen the film and as we left the warmth of the theatre into the cold Northern night, I felt satiated, perfectly content with the world.
In recent years, I’ve seen clips of the film played out on South Park or Home Alone (1990), both of which made me laugh but despite these homages or mockery, as some might see it, of this Christmas classic, it hasn’t dampened my love of it. Still, they’re worth watching for giggles.
For those who haven’t seen it, the film tells the poignant story of George Bailey (James Stewart) whose life takes a nosedive after an unfortunate incident at the bank leaves his business on the verge of collapse and considers taking his own life. He is given the opportunity, by an angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), to look at what the town would have looked like had he never been born and realises how many people his existence affected.
This film is described as a timeless masterpiece, a label which fits perfectly. Considering the key elements of this film are about family, community, and how one man really can make a difference, it hasn’t aged one bit. But let’s also consider that although George’s contribution to the lives of the people of Bedford Falls is important, so is the contribution to George’s life by his wife, Mary (Donna Reed). He has dreams of his own, remember. To go off to college, travel the world, come back and build things. He doesn’t want to be stuck at home doing a job he hates so when circumstances change – his father dying for instance – leaving him at home holding down the fort, so to speak, he becomes frustrated, his dreams slipping away day by day. It is his wife and family that make his continued existence in Bedford Falls so bearable.
A good portion of this film is given to George’s life. After all, Clarence needs to know his story before he’s sent to earth and so, we begin with George’s childhood and the day he saved his brother from drowning. We watch George in his teenage years as he’s wooing Mary with songs about buffalos and ideals of lassooing the moon. That part always makes me chuckle. The 30+ teenage Stewart, dressed in sport attire wooing Mary? Ah well, you’re asked to suspend belief for everything else so why not that? We follow George as he enters early adulthood, his dreams of going to college all but over as his father dies and he finds himself in control of Bailey’s Building and Loans just to keep the greedy Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) at bay. And Mr. Potter never stops trying to bring down Bailey’s business, at one point playing to Bailey’s weak points – his ambition, his dreams – in an attempt to take over completely but George never gives up fighting for the town. It’s not until his uncle, in a clumsy moment, loses a large chunk of the business’s money to Potter that Bailey’s world comes crashing down, to the point that George finds himself at Potter’s begging for help that is never going to come. Crushed, angry, and desperate, George finds himself on a bridge on the outskirts of Bedford Falls seriously contemplating suicide when Clarence leaps into the icy waters below, knowing full well that George will save him, which he does. They find themselves in a hut drying off when George laments that he wishes he’d never been born and Clarence decides to show him what would have happened if that was true. And so, we are shown a Bedford Falls without George.
It has completely fallen to Potter because there was no one around to resist his takeover. The houses that Bailey Building and Loans built are not there. The town centre is full of sodomy and debauchery, strip joints and bars all over the place. The people are hardened, cynical, isolated. The spirit that Bedford Falls had in George’s life is completely gone, everyone out for what they can get, no one looking out for one another. And all because George was not there to change it.
I love a story where you can see the power one man has on his surroundings. And wow, Jimmy Stewart really excels in this role. We see the magic in his eyes as he tells Mary in their teens about his dreams. We feel his frustration as his ambitions slip away. And crikey, if you can’t feel his pain towards the end, as he sips whiskey at Martini’s, his face as much as his resolve crumbling in plain view, well, you’re missing that vital part that makes us human. After all, we’re as immersed in the fortunes of George as his community and family are. We want him to do well, we want his dreams to be recognised and we want to see Potter get his just desserts. That scene was crushing and it makes the end of the film, when George is saved by his community, all the more satisfying.
Lionel Barrymore, as Mr. Potter, doesn’t really need to do much aside from scowl from his wheelchair but he plays that role so well, you hope that his minder would accidentally slip on the ice, sending Potter careering down Main Street into the headlights of a speeding truck. He really is a despicable excuse for a human being. The anywhere type. Someone who doesn’t really fit into any place but is happy to destroy the heart of Bedford Falls piece by piece. It’s satisfying that he doesn’t but it always bothered me that he got away with his crimes. Not that it mattered in the end. George and his indomitable spirit kept the devil at bay.
There’s something in this story that reminds me of Paulo Coelho’s classic short, “The Devil and Miss Prym.” The devil, in that story, tries to tempt the people into committing an unspeakable act to enrich the community and though it is touch and go for a while, he doesn’t succeed. And so it is with George in It’s a Wonderful Life. Potter knows George better than we might have thought and uses George’s insecurities to entice him towards a life he at one point wanted but George finally recognises what Potter is up to and resists him. And because of his good work and the friendships he has built throughout Bedford Falls, the town comes together to save this man and better yet, save themselves.
Community, spirit, family, and the power of good over evil. I couldn’t think of a better film to play at Christmas.