12 Films of Christmas #6: It’s A Wonderful Life

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It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

I’m going to follow-up perhaps the raunchiest Christmas movie with one of the sappiest on record. Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life is about as well known as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, at this point. It’s certainly the most adapted, or parodied, Christmas plots other than A Christmas Carol. Beavis and Butt-Head even have their own take on it! Now I’m not one for corn, or sentimentality, when it comes to Christmas films, but I have my moments. And if I’m going to feature one of the classics on this list it might as well be It’s A Wonderful Life.

The story of how It’s A Wonderful Life became a Christmas institution is probably pretty well known. To recap, the film was a dud when it was first released and studios viewed it as a sign that director Frank Capra was losing his touch. The film would eventually fall into the public domain and Ted Turner, of all people, gave it a second life when he started featuring it on his cable channels at Christmas time. Now it’s one of those event viewings on television during the Christmas season and always gets a premium time-slot.

Where It’s A Wonderful Life sets itself apart is in showing how bleak and depressing one man’s life can become. It’s a story about unfulfilled dreams and ambition. George Bailey (James Stewart) is a dreamer. He’s going to grow up and do all of these wonderful things, but along the way he’s constantly challenged to do the right thing and sacrifice his own goals in the process. He can never enlist in the armed forces because he lost hearing in one ear when  he saved his kid brother from drowning. It’s his brother Harry (Todd Karns) who becomes the decorated Navy pilot instead. He wants to get out and see the world and desperately doesn’t want to end up like his father running an old Building and Loan. When his dad passes away suddenly, it’s George to the rescue who takes over the family business. Even a run on that same Building and Loan screws up his honeymoon as George has to use his own cash he received for getting married to cover all of the withdrawals and forego his honeymoon.

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A man at the end of his rope.

That’s not to say that George’s life is a waste, it’s just easy to see how one person could feel like fate is dumping on him. He does get the girl, Mary (Donna Reed), and as a local business man is able to establish Bailey Park, an area of affordable housing in contrast to the slums managed by his rival, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). He and Mary have three children, and George seems to be a rather well-liked individual, a borderline local celebrity.

Most of the picture takes place in the form of a flashback. It’s being viewed by two angels, one of which is Clarence (Henry Travers), who is to be George’s guardian angel. This also makes It’s A Wonderful Life the rare secular film to find its way onto my television at this time of year. See Clarence is an angel who has yet to earn his wings. If he can save George, he’s promised them. And when things take a turn for the worse, and Potter is in position to seize the Building and Loan, George is ready to take his own life by jumping off a bridge. To prevent that from happening, Clarence jumps instead and George springs to the rescue. In order to convince George he has a life worth living, Clarence decides to show George what the world would be like had he never been born.

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“Merry Christmas, movie house!”

You probably know the rest. Naturally, everyone George knows seems to be worse off, or even dead. George has an epiphany and is back home in time for Christmas. And lets not forget, this is a list of films about Christmas. Visually speaking, George running through the streets of Bedford Falls in the falling snow screaming “Merry Christmas!” to everything and every one he sees is about as timeless as it gets. A film that spends a great deal of time focusing on the depressing parts of one man’s life turns into a rather feel-good movie in the end that sits dead-center in one’s throat.

Being an old film, it naturally doesn’t possess the visual charms of modern pictures. There are colorized versions out there but they’re kind of unnatural looking. Stewart makes George a very compassionate character. We don’t always have to love him as a viewer, but it’s always easy to get inside his head. And since he seems to be harmed most by just doing what’s right, it makes him easy to root for. Stewart is particularly effecting during a scene where he has to beg Potter for money that his uncle lost, right after telling Potter off earlier in the day when he tried to hire him away from the Building and Loan. It’s an uncomfortable scene, and George is doing something we wish he wasn’t, but we admire him for having the capacity to do it.

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“OMG IT’S CHRISTMAS!!”

There are of course some aspects of the film that could have been improved. It’s a bit long, coming in at 130 minutes and if you watch it on television with full commercials it becomes quite a chore. There’s plenty of scenes that could have been shortened for time, but this was Capra’s baby and likely no one was telling him how to cut his film. I also wish there was some closure in regards to Potter, who actually ends the film by enriching himself on George’s money that his uncle lost. I’m not saying they had to go full Saturday Night Live and set a mob on Potter, but a nice heart attack or even a public shaming would have been sweet. Since George is featured in almost every scene in the film, there’s not a lot of time spent on character development for the supporting cast. I feel like the Mary character is only just touched upon as she settles in as a maternal archetype more than anything. At the film’s conclusion it almost feels like a quiz to see which faces can be recalled from earlier in the film. I don’t need to know everyone’s life story, but it feels like at least a few of those faces could have been fleshed out. Though if it made the picture any longer then I’m fine with things the way they are!

 

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