Where has this movie been all my life?? Actually, that’s a pretty easy question to answer: growing up Jewish, I didn’t watch Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life annually on Christmas, and viewed it for the first time just a few days ago. Suffice to say, I had fairly low expectations—the tongue-in-cheek moniker that’s often applied to Capra (Capra-corn) had me fairly wary of his work in general, let alone one about angels descending to earth. Well, color me shocked: I loved every second of it. One could use It’s a Wonderful Life to teach their children values—compassion, selflessness, loyalty, and self-respect, among many others that the film preaches without being, well, preachy. And let me dispel the notion that it’s a “Christmas” movie in the truest sense of the term. I certainly see why it’s become a ritual for many families, sure, with its well-deserved, poignant ending and its strong core principles. But one needn’t be observant, or religious in any way, to fall under its spell.
It’s a Wonderful Life opens with an overhead shot from the heavens: Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), an angel aspiring to obtain his wings, is being treated to a portrait of the life of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who’s contemplating taking his own life. Clarence is told that the elusive wings can be his if he shows George what a terrible mistake he’d be making, and through flashbacks, we begin to see why. From early in life, when George saved his brother from drowning in a freezing hole in the ice after a sledding mishap—which cost George the hearing in his left ear—he put the needs of others ahead of his own, and hated to see anyone unhappy. From stopping a shopkeeper from accidentally poisoning a child, to refusing to sell his late father’s savings and loans business to scrooge clone Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) despite the business’ lack of profitability, Bailey lived true to his principles. Capra gracefully paints the portrait of a man whose combination of sophistication, intellect, and quick wit could have made him rich as can be, but simply refused to let anyone down, and thus gave up any hope of wealth. No scene is more emblematic of Bailey’s noble sensibilities than when his brother Harry (Todd Karns) returns home from four years away. George had been running the savings-and-loans with the understanding that Harry would take things over when he got back, but at the train station, Harry springs the news: he’s engaged to be married, and his father-in-law has offered him a job elsewhere, a job that his wife desperately wants him to take. In a staggeringly brilliant piece of acting by Stewart, a brief shadow flashes across George’s face, a moment of disappointment that his dreams of leaving Bedford Falls are hanging in the balance. Harry, sensing this, nervously says that he hasn’t accepted the job yet, and that they could talk about it. But as quickly as it appeared, the shadow passes, and George smiles broadly, slaps his brother across the back, and whoops, “what am I doing, congratulations! Let’s celebrate!” The scene, which could have easily been cloying and unconvincing, feels 100% genuine, in large part to Stewart—who is absolutely dazzling throughout—but also because Capra has so smoothly built up George’s morals and integrity that it would have felt unnatural if he’d done anything else. Still, that doesn’t ease the tug we feel at our hearts, that George may never escape his struggles despite his warmth and skillset.
We see more of George’s goodness in his relationship with Mary (Donna Reed), an attractive-but-unspectacular lady from town. George gradually falls in love with her, as he realizes that most Bedford Falls women, such as Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) are uninterested in the simple pleasures that float his boat: nature, walks, freedom. Violent’s repugnant reaction when George suggests a romp through the hills—she merely wanted to get dolled up and prance around town on his arm, looking pretty as can be—serves as a wakeup call that his worldview and that of most others are incompatible (in this way, Violet, an otherwise minor character, serves as a key cog in dissecting George’s love for Mary, and how he sees life as a whole). After George and Mary wed, they have four children, and while their house is full of love, they live paycheck-to-paycheck on George’s meager returns from the savings-and-loans, which is being bullied by Potter’s monopoly on the town’s business interests (Potter, a former board member of the S & L, loathes George for his selflessness, and wants nothing more than to drive him to desperation and out of business). Mary’s love for George is untarnished by their lack of money, and that makes her a perfect mate: her appreciation for his strong points shines through during a rare blowup at their home about 3/4 of the way through, when an accounting error by George’s Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), his second-in-command at the S & L, leaves them tapped and at risk of losing everything. Forced to his knees, George swallows his pride and begs Potter for $8,000, only to be laughed at and kicked out. At wit’s end, George loses his temper, snapping at Mary and the children, and storms out into a blizzard, leaving his family behind in complete shock. Mary’s miserable, befuddled look, her complete uncertainty of how to respond, speaks volumes about her pain at seeing her noble husband, for the first time, really lose it.
This entire setup could have been unbearably schmaltzy, a cup of feel-good cheese soup. After all, how many times can one sing the praises of a single man? And to top it off, we’re then treated to see Clarence guide George through what life would have been had he never existed! Yet It’s a Wonderful Life strikes nary a wrong note. As we see George slowly realize that Clarence isn’t a figment of his imagination, that this really is the world as it would have been without him—Harry dead instead of a celebrated war hero; Bedford Falls in decay and renamed Potterville; and most tragically, Mary an unmarried librarian with no love in her life—it’s impossible to not be deeply moved and reflect upon our own humble existence, and wonder who we’ve touched without realizing the extent. When George emerges from the fog and dashes home to his family, his vigor renewed and unbridled optimism restored, to discover that the entire town had banded together to erase his debt, it feels completely justified. Has any movie ever deserved such an uplifting ending as this one? It’s a Wonderful Life may be Jimmy Stewart’s very best work, and that’s saying something—this is the star of Rear Window and Vertigo, the man who turned in first-rate supporting performances in After the Thin Man and The Philadelphia Story, after all. But every enunciation and facial expression is executed perfectly, and it’s difficult to stay dry-eyed for long stretches of this masterpiece in large part to him (which is not to sell Capra’s first-rate direction short). Despite being a non-practicing Jew, I may make a regular viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life a regular part of my Christmas Eve as well.