Picture the scene. Christmas Day, sometime after lunch. All the presents have been opened, the Christmas dinner has been eaten, the Queen’s speech has been, er, ignored, and now it’s time for the family to sit down on a day of yuletide joy and watch a film together. What should it be? Why of course! How could it be anything other than Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life?
It is, after all, the quintessential family Christmas film. Remember? It’s the one where a man gives up all his ambitions and dreams in order to put others first. The one where he loses all his money and faces bankruptcy and prison. The one where he ends up on Christmas Eve night, ready to hurl himself in a river. The one which leaves everyone sobbing into their pudding before you can say ‘Auld Lang Syne’. And we watch it every Christmas. Er, hang on a minute, really?
Why do we, as a nation, enter into this annual display of cinematic masochism? Why do we choose the ultimate day of family happiness and peace to all mankind to watch a film about a man choosing to commit suicide? What is it about It’s A Wonderful Life that makes it as much a part of Christmas as turkey and crackers? Starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, and directed by Frank Capra, It’s A Wonderful Life is a film now regarded as nothing short of perfection, and an immovable addition to Christmas viewing.
I have no idea when I first saw It’s A Wonderful Life. The film feels like it has always been there, a film I have watched every Christmas for so long that I cannot recall the years beforehand when I had no awareness of it. All I know for certain is that as far back as my memory will go, I have watched the film ever single Christmas with a religious devotion. It’s almost not a choice; the film has to be watched at Christmas and there is no argument to suggest why that should not be. And without doubt, many other people feel the same, routinely watching the film every single year. It is an intrinsic part of Christmas tradition.
It is interesting to think that a film which is considered one of the greatest films ever made had such a troubled history. Like many of the best loved films, It’s A Wonderful Life was not a box office smash hit or multi-Oscar winning triumph. The film went through 8 different writers and was originally intended as a vehicle for Cary Grant before plans were shelved. The film then fell into the hands of Frank Capra who pitched the idea to James Stewart before abruptly changing his mind and declaring the film a bad idea. The plot does certainly sound less effective when on paper – an angel named Clarence is sent down to earth on Christmas Eve to help George Bailey (Stewart), who is contemplating suicide. After re-watching the tale of George’s life, Clarence tries to convince him not to commit suicide by showing him how the world would have been had he never been born. After witnessing the existence his friends and family would have had without him, George recognises the importance of his own life and returns to him family.
Capra was cynical about the overly sentimental and potentially fluffy content and quickly declared his lack of interest in the film. But the plot struck a chord with Stewart who agreed to play the lead role of George Bailey. Despite Stewart’s star presence, the film received mixed reviews and performed badly at the box office. It received 5 Oscar nominations but failed to win any. If it were not for a error made in the copyright of the film, it is likely It’s A Wonderful Life would have faded into obscurity. After the copyright was allowed to lapse, It’s A Wonderful Life was shown repeatedly on television, a cheap film used to fill the schedules. The film was regularly shown at Christmas, a time when all television schedulers were under pressure to show large numbers of films. Slowly and gradually, It’s A Wonderful Life began to gain an increasing number of fans, its consistent presence in the Christmas schedules provoking growing affection for the film’s sentimental themes. The appeal of the film has endured to the present day and It’s A Wonderful Life is now a firm family favourite, fondly replayed by thousands every Christmas.
On paper, It’s A Wonderful Life sounds like schmaltzy rubbish which should be consigned to the bin, but somehow the combination of the right ingredients make for a film which is a rare example of near perfection. Perhaps the biggest coup was the casting of James Stewart in the lead role. In the context of when the film was made, Stewart was quite possibly the finest choice when it came to representing the qualities of the ideal, all-American hero. Stewart had been steadily building himself a critically acclaimed and successful film career, establishing himself as one of the leading men in Hollywood. In 1940, he achieved the ultimate acting accolade, winning an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story.
Stewart was popular, talented and had the prizes to prove it. However, the real cherry of the cake was that audiences seeing Stewart in 1946 when It’s A Wonderful Life was released were seeing him for the first time on the cinema screen in five years, Stewart having put his acting career on hold to be the first movie star to serve in World War II. So Stewart was not only popular and talented – he was a man who had just returned from five years of serving his country. Film heroes don’t come much more authentic than James Stewart, a man with both the on-screen talent and off-screen decency to make himself into the ultimate leading man.
It’s A Wonderful Life was the perfect vehicle for Stewart as it finally gave him a chance to showcase some of his darker, more dramatic skills which had no place in the many light-hearted comedies he made up until this point. It is very often the darker side of James Stewart that is the more watchable, a point noted by Alfred Hitchcock who directed Stewart in arguably his finest and most challenging role, the tortured and obsessive Scottie in Vertigo (1958). George Bailey is certainly not a complex or deep as Scottie, but he is a lead character with a magnetism that draws the audience deep into the heart of the film.
It’s A Wonderful Life tells George Bailey’s life in retrospect, the audience learning George’s history alongside guardian angel Clarence. The film shows us that George is a thoroughly decent and goodhearted man, a man who continually gives up his own aspirations for the sake of others and puts his loved ones before himself. George’s good deeds are touching and often fraught with self-sacrifice; partially losing his hearing whilst saving his brother’s life, giving up his plans to travel the world in order to run his father’s business and giving away his own honeymoon savings in order to help the clients at his Buildings and Loans company.
George Bailey could easily be the sort of saint-like figure of perfection which tends to alienate and irritate an audience rather than endear them. It’s A Wonderful Life works so perfectly because George Bailey is such a thoroughly likeable man which any audience can relate to. George is not perfect; although he is a good man he doesn’t sacrifices his own happiness with a willing smile. George is frustrated, angry and bitter at the chances he has missed and the good fortune which is experienced by those around him. He is jealous of what he was never able to achieve and privately resents the sacrifices he has been forced to make. George is the perfect leading man for this tale of the value of life as he is a man who feels real in every sense of the word. An all-round family man, a good human being and one who harbours the natural human emotions of regret and frustration.
In examining the plot of It’s A Wonderful Life, the film deals with the many mundane aspects of everyday life that seek to challenge us all. Family, work, money and relationships are the fundamental issues that face us every single day, and it is these things that George Bailey battles against as he wearily plods through his increasingly difficult life. And alongside these plot elements we find the wholly unseasonal themes of despair, hopelessness, disappointment, regret and depression. It’s A Wonderful Life is often wrongly branded as a sugary sweet happy film, but anyone with any familiarity of the content can vouch for the fact that this is a poor misconception. It’s A Wonderful Life is littered with scenes of a deeply disturbing and often dark nature, painfully out of keeping with the warm atmosphere of Christmas.
Perhaps the most shocking moment of the whole film is the sight of George Bailey coming home, aware that his business is about to go bankrupt over a large sum of missing money. George walks into the happy sitting room of his young family, before the strain drives him to shout and kick furniture in front of his children. The shocked silence of the Bailey family is only made worse as one of the younger girls begins to cry. Even after multiple viewings, it remains a deeply disturbing and uncomfortable scene, the sight of violence in the home and the distress of young children touching a sensitive nerve in any viewer.
Ultimately, although the plot and main character of It’s A Wonderful Life are hugely endearing, nothing can change the fact that the film remains one with dark and depressing overtones for one that is watched by so many at Christmas time. Is there any logical reason as to why a film with such challenging themes has established itself as a family favourite?
It’s A Wonderful Life is a film that is ultimately uplifting and happy as the sadness of the journey is redeemed by the unashamed sentimental heart of the ending. The viewer must endure a very long and arduous journey through the life of George Bailey, but the reward at the end of seeing him as the receiver of so much love and friendship is worth the pain. For many, Christmas is a time of reflection, considering the highs and lows of the year gone by and making plans for the year ahead. Every one of us has experienced the same pain that George Bailey feels, looking back on life and feeling twinges of sadness and regret at what we never achieved and the opportunities we missed. Christmas is a wonderful time for family and friendship but also a time of emotional vulnerability as so many go through the annual anxiety of assessing their own achievements and shortcomings. A film such as It’s A Wonderful Life is a source of tremendous warmth and comfort at this time, reminding us that however poor we believe our lives to be, we do touch people every day without even realising. George Bailey rediscovers his love for life as he travels through the alternate reality of Pottersville, seeing how his friends and family would have been affected without his existence. George’s slow understanding that his life possesses great meaning is one of the most heart-warming film moments that can be witnessed, although I personally am always amused at George’s horror when he realises his wife Mary would have become a glasses-wearing librarian if he had never lived. A dire fate indeed.
All films possess a message, and as the notes of Auld Lang Syne ring out over the film’s tearstained finale, the message is very clear. We all matter, we all have a value and however awful we think our lives are, we all make a difference to others without even knowing it. To get across a message as nauseatingly sweet as that whilst still retaining an undertone of dark, poignant drama is a spectacular achievement. It’s A Wonderful Life requires multiple viewings and is thoroughly deserving of the monumental amounts of praise heaped on it.
Films with a sentimental core and emotional ending are nearly always the subject of considerable scorn, dismissed by many as simply overly wet nonsense designed to make people cry. It’s A Wonderful Life is a rare example of a film that can be shamelessly wallowed over by everyone, a glorious pile of sentimental joy that leaves a warm glow inside. It may be a film about suicide and despair, but it is perfect for Christmas time as it is ultimately about the value of life. And there is no better time to appreciate that than when surrounded by loved ones at Christmas.