As we come up to Christmas, there’s one film in particular that has a habit of cropping up on screens, decades after its release: It’s a Wonderful Life. Few complain, and most will watch it compulsively again and again. But why?
I first saw the film when I was a child, as my father is a long-time fan of Jimmy Stewart and has championed the man’s work throughout my life. My respect for Stewart, as an actor, exceeds my regard for any other person in the film industry. Never has such a softly spoken, kind individual translated so well onto film, and touched so many people’s lives.
It’s a Wonderful Life is usually thought of a film about family, but to associate it with this theme alone would be wrong. If anything, I’d argue the film’s main theme is redemption, and a man regaining his self-confidence after feeling just a little too small in a world full of machinations far bigger than his small-town sensibilities could comprehend.
Based on the short story “The Greatest Gift“, by Phillip Van Doren Stern and directed by the legendary Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life begins and ends with its protagonist’s unrelenting positivity. George Bailey is a man of character – loving, funny, almost financially suicidal with his generosity, and ferociously loyal to family values, even when running a bank.
One reason the film resonates even now is the presence of Henry F. Potter, the local slum landlord, and a symbol of corporate takeover, of merciless valuation of financial success over all other concerns. If you can’t identify with that, as the recession and the Occupy movements become deafeningly omnipresent, then you are a lucky individual indeed.
The film’s unique ability to take us to dark places, contrary to it’s reputation for being upbeat, has been described by Wendell Jamieson of the New York Times:
“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.”
Bailey’s struggle to keep his life together, as his family runs low on money and those around him appear to be failing him at every opportunity, is heartbreaking, and Stewart’s constant benevolence towards even the worst of enemies makes his swerve towards suicide even more jarring. Then in steps Clarence, Angel, Second Class.
Clarence represents the best in all of us, as does George, and the two are an odd couple. George finally meets someone as pleasant and understanding as he is, and finds the individual incredibly frustrating. But it is that positive outlook that drags George back into the light, and it’s comforting to know that his vision of what the future could have been had he not been in it is enough to convince him how much his apparently thankless donations of time, love and attention to people really mattered.
What a vision it was. George, as a child, saved his brother from drowning, ending up deaf in one ear but a hero. Without him, the town is a derelict, dark place, full of criminality and sleazy outlets, slums and dissatisfied (or in his brother’s case, dead) individuals who lack the George Influence.
It’s at this point the film takes a turn towards film noir, but if anything, it helped spawn a genre that holds the opposite world view – film blanc. Applied to films like It’s a Wonderful Life, film blanc is a genre that places emphasis on the wonderful, the fantastical, and that not every story needs to hold itself to realism to the point where it’s impossible to render a happy ending. Film blanc can ties up all the loose ends and allow us to sit back, relax, smile, and wax lyrical on the life of George Bailey as we fumble around for more Christmas snacks. The message in It’s a Wonderful Life is pure film blanc: family and friends can come together to support us through the most difficult period of life.
The reason this message is so important, especially now as we lead up to Christmas, is because it’s the one time of year where you are given the opportunity to spend time with your family that few other considerations can take away from you. George Bailey swiftly learned that what he knew in the beginning was what could push him through his depressive phase and back towards success – a loving community. In some ways it’s a small-town film that doesn’t really work past the decade during which it was shot, because we’re a more insulated people who get our kicks on YouTube or at the club. The idea of people of all ages converging on a local businessman to bail him out in 2011 is about as likely as Rupert Murdoch donating 99.99% of his personal wealth to charity in his will (good on you, Bill Gates).
The film, oddly, received only mixed reviews when it was first released in 1946, because critics found the ways in which George’s problems are solved as unrealistic, given that everyone arrives at just the right time to save George from a horrible fate at two different points in the film. It seems ironic, given that any average film fan would tell you that it’s a “feel-good” film. Perhaps it was simply anathema to those who had just emerged from the horrors of the Second World War, those who had learned that happy coincidences are often very far away.
Rotten Tomatoes says the film has a 95% approval rating from the critics, and 94% from the public, which is nothing short of astounding and testament to its appeal. So is the fact that the top critics on the site return an average of 100%. However, its impact on Stewart’s life was even more significant.
In reference to Frank Capra’s influence on his career, Stewart states:
“Frank really saved my career. I don’t know whether I would have made it after the war if it hadn’t been for Frank. It wasn’t just a case of picking up where you’d left off, because it’s not that kind of business. It was over four and a half years that I’d been completely away from anything that had to do with the movies. Then one day Frank Capra called me and said he had an idea for a movie.
“He said, ‘Now, you’re in a small town and things aren’t going very well. You begin to wish you’d never been born. And you decide to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into the river, but an angel named Clarence comes down from heaven, and, uh, Clarence hasn’t won his wings yet. He comes down to save you when you jump into the river, but Clarence can’t swim, so you save him.’
“Then Frank stopped and said, ‘This story doesn’t tell very well, does it?’
“I just said, ‘Frank, if you want to do a movie about me committing suicide, with an angel with no wings named Clarence, I’m your boy.'”
Stewart went on to enjoy a legendary career, with films like Vertigo and Harvey bolstering the ranks of ten-out-of-ten cinematic experiences available to those who aren’t afraid to drop the action-adventure for a little heart strings-tugging and gentle comedy. But It’s a Wonderful Life will forever remain one film that almost everyone is aware of, because of its emotional accessibility, and its strong desire never to venture into anything too complex, which is key to its ongoing success, especially relative to Stewart’s other work.
Harvey deals with mental illness, Vertigo with the fear of heights, Rear Window with paranoia – all of these films go a little deeper, and there’s nothing really fantastical about them, save for Harvey, which I value enough not to spoil for you. Their choice of psychological realism over spiritual flight of fancy is what disqualifies them from the Christmas Winner prize for film. It’s a Wonderful Life makes no such mistakes.
There’s also no arguing the impact it had on popular culture. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen the usually exhaustive Wikipedia say that “only a few examples will suffice to illustrate the film’s impact” – and even then, they’ve got five. Clarence and George are referenced constantly, and the theme of “this is the world without you”, combined with a similar narrative forming part of the basis for A Christmas Carol, means that any feel-good narrative can tap into the work of Capra and Stewart to bring out the best in their own fictional universe through the tales present within It’s a Wonderful Life.
You could say, to conclude and mercifully cut short the ramblings of someone raised on Jimmy Stewart, that it’s probably one of the most important films in history. I’d argue it is. It will never become irrelevant, clichéd or outdated, and the fact that it’s often given a prime-time slot, decades after release, shows just how attached to it we are. This isn’t just a retrospective – I think you can genuinely look to the future with a copy of this in hand.