There are Christmas movies and then there are Christmas movies—movies, which have become perennial classics and movies that can be watched over and over from one generation to the next.
One such movie is It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) directed by Frank Capra that has become of the holiday’s most loved and watched movie. With its enduring message of courage and sacrifice, the film’s strong human values with a Christmas backdrop are what have made it a classic, and for many families, a family tradition to watch the film at this time of the year.
The story is classic in terms of the one person’s courage and sacrifice. Back in the golden, classic age of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, Capra was the indisputable master of these kinds of human-interest stories with classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town besides his one of his personal favorites, It’s a Wonderful Life.
His genius was not only bringing these human stories to life on the silver screen in a ways that not only make a point, but also that totally involves the audience in the lives of the characters. Likewise, he is always extremely optimistic about the human condition. He is known for testing his characters with overwhelming adversity to make them struggle to triumph in a way that causes the world to change and the character to grow.
And that’s exactly what you have with the story in It’s a Wonderful Life. The story might seem simple and formulaic, perhaps even a bit too saccharine at times, but that is what contributed to some of the film’s appeal. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has spent his entire life giving of himself to the people of Bedford Falls. He has always longed to travel but never had the opportunity in order to prevent rich skinflint Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) from taking over the entire town. All that prevents him from doing so is George’s modest building and loan company, which was founded by his generous father.
Now this story could have been told at any time of the year, but this is where the film became a holiday classic.
It’s on Christmas Eve, when George’s absentminded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses the business’s $8,000 while intending to deposit it in the bank. By chance, Potter finds the misplaced money and hides it from Billy. When the bank examiner discovers the shortage later that night, George realizes that he will be held responsible and sent to jail and the company will collapse, finally allowing Potter to take over the town.
Thinking of his wife, Mary (Donna Reed), their young children, and others that he loves will be better off with him dead, he contemplates suicide. He thinks that his family will be able to get by with his life insurance. However, the prayers of his loved ones result in a gentle angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) coming to earth to help George, with the promise of earning his wings. Clarence shows George what things would have been like if he had never been born. In a nightmarish vision in which the Potter-controlled town is sunk in sex and sin, those George loves are either dead, ruined, or miserable. He realizes that he has touched many people in a positive way and that his life has truly been a wonderful one, which is the film’s second message that no matter how insignificant we might feel we are when life has got us down, in the end we are all inextricably linked to each other and play an important part in the fabric of one another’s lives.
Simple yes, but it is a very effective story. With Christmas as a backdrop, a time of goodwill and peace on Earth, this story soars. If you are not sobbing by the end of the movie, perhaps you might be better served cinematically with Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch.
It’s a Wonderful Life is the perfect family movie for the holidays and one that never gets old no matter how many times you have seen it.