Film 101 is In Reel Deep’s commitment to an in-depth re-examination of cinematic classics — old and new. Learn more about the ongoing series and see others in it on our Film 101 page.
Is there any film that has been watched more times by more people than It's a Wonderful Life? I suppose the bean-counters among you might offer Star Wars as a potential counter to that question. And I suppose Star Wars grows the more likely answer by the day. But, at worst, It's a Wonderful Life has to be a comfortable second, a fact that seems at once obvious and unbelievable.
The Frank Capra film of course owes its status to the yearly Christmas viewings that have become a decades-long ritual in countless American home. For people my age, it has always been there at the Holidays, right alongside relatives and egg nog and stockings. It is so ever-present that its place is unquestioned by many, including myself.
Well, here is an occasion to probe a bit deeper, and with it, allow me to marvel at just how unlikely it is that this film is the cinematic centerpiece of Christmas. There is its circuitous historical path to network television staple - more on that in a second - but first and foremost there is the film.
Capra himself acknowledged in interviews that he never thought he was making a Christmas-classic kind of film and didn't really think of It's a Wonderful Life as such. When you consider the story itself, it's hard to disagree. Clarence's angelic intervention to save George Bailey from suicide does take place on Christmas Eve, but Clarence's vision of Bedford Falls without him is relatively brief and really isn't rolled up with much holiday spirit. Much of the rest of the film is, of course, a series of flashbacks that build affinity for George Bailey but have exactly nothing to do with Christmas.
Bailey's dramatic return from the brink shares plenty on a superficial level with Ebenezer Scrooge's in A Christmas Carol - intervention from a spirit convinces a man in finance to change the course of his life. But considered in the context of their respective lives, It's a Wonderful Life has something quite different to say about its protagonist than Charles Dickens did about Scrooge.
While Dickens offers a comprehensive repudiation of the selfishness and isolation that made Scrooge the way he is, Capra and Jimmy Stewart, who plays Bailey and had just returned from service in World War II, put forth an affirmation of American values - specifically the physical and financial sacrifice that millions like Stewart had just made to defeat the Axis powers. Clarence materializes to get Bailey to stay the course, not change, which sets up the immensely rewarding and surprisingly emotional finale, where the townspeople of Bedford Falls come together to help someone who has helped countless among them over the years.
Again, it's not that the story doesn't fit in with the holiday spirit. The film comes to a climax on Christmas Eve with fir trees and tinsel and ornaments in the background. But it would likely stand up without Christmas as a plot device at all, though it certainly wouldn't enjoy the same popularity in to the present day.
Even beyond the loose Christmas tie-in, it still feels odd that this is the Christmas movie to this day. We have by and large agreed as a nation that this is the film to watch with the rest of your family every year despite its undeniable cheesiness in certain moments and its wildly progressive politics in others. The film was considered by some, including the FBI, to be Communist propaganda when it was released. The country has grown more not less divided since, but the film's very clear disdain for the naked pursuit of wealth hasn't softened one bit. It's refreshing, especially in the age of Trump, to see a film celebrate kindness and decency and charity on their own merits when meanness and greed seem to be the order of the day. It's a Christmas miracle that Fox & Friends isn't leading a boycott of this film for being anti-banker, isn't it?
That it is not more controversial is a mix of two factors.
First is the trivia I mentioned earlier: It's a Wonderful Life became a part of the Christmas in the 1970s when the rights to the film passed in to public domain, allowing first PBS and then pretty much every other network to air it repeatedly at a point when television was a fixture of the home. This may be the best cinematic example of the law of unintended consequences we have.
Second, and much more by design are the pitch-perfect performances by the cast. Like most films from this era, dialogue and acting take on an outsized performance. Each of Capra's stars are able to elicit the emotions needed to make this film a classic. Donna Reed's Mary gives voice to what the viewer is thinking - able to see all the goodness in George that he can't see himself. Lionel Barrymore's sneer and domineering physical presence even in a wheelchair - take note of the size of his hands and the way he is positioned during his most direct confrontation with George - make Mr. Potter one of the most detestable (and thus best!) villains in movie history.
Stewart, meanwhile, makes George Bailey in to an all-time mensch. He bends over backwards for his family and his community, frequently at the expense of his own hopes and dreams. He is funny and grumpy and charming - a big part of his charm stemming from how unaware he is of his own menschiness.
This is the second Jimmy Stewart vehicle I have watched for Film 101 (the previous being Vertigo), but the first where his particular talents have felt truly essential to the success of a story.
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to Capra, Stewart and the rest is, well, that I get it now. I had somehow managed to not see this movie from start to finish for 35 years. I still do not fully understand why It's a Wonderful Life is the Christmas classic it is, but its many merits are undeniable and astonishing, and I am not in a mood to encourage anyone to think too deeply about the why here. It took me awhile, but like so many other households in America, mine is now one where It's a Wonderful Life will play every year.