IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

  • Director: Frank Capra
  • Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Frank Capra, based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern
  • Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns, Bill Edmunds, and Bobbie Anderson
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#20), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 List (#62), 1 Oscar (Technical Achievement Award), 5  additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Frank Capra, Best Actor – James Stewart, Best Film Editing, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with cable subscription on USA Network app, stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV.

I recently enjoyed an article by Drew Magary (one of my favorite random internet writers) entitled “I’m the Last White Person Alive to See Love Actually and I Have Questions.” One of those questions is about whether there are really people who watch Love Actually every Christmas, on the grounds that it’s not “A Christmas Story, Elf, or the last half hour of It’s a Wonderful Life.” There was a time when It’s a Wonderful Life was THE Christmas movie, bar none, and it’s stuck around through the siloization of all media because of that one-time ubiquity. I have no actual research to back this up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the “old” or black and white and classic Hollywood movie seen by the most people today is, in fact, It’s a Wonderful Life. There are probably literally thousands of people out there where this is the ONLY movie like that they’ve ever seen. This is the first movie we’ve covered on this site where, when I googled it, it brought up a list of local theaters showing it.

I personally had not sat down and watched this thing in many a year, and I recalled, if not hating it, being vaguely nonplussed by it. I enjoyed it on this go-round more than I expected, or at least I think I did? It’s supposed to be “inspirational’ (when AFI did a list of the “most inspirational” American movies, it came first), yet I’ve always found it to be a very dark story. Jimmy Stewart spends the whole movie giving up on his own dreams to help the people around him, and then completely loses it after it seems like he’s going to get thanked for that by going to jail by no fault of his own (because his useless uncle, played by Thomas Mitchell, lost $8,000 dollars of depositor money at the savings & loan they run). The movie’s big twist (that “last half hour”) is the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) intervening as Stewart’s George Bailey is about to kill himself, in order to show Stewart what the world would have been like if Stewart had never been born. The small, Capra-esque town we’ve spent two hours in, Bedford Falls, is suddenly named Pottersville (after the villain), and terrible things have happened to everyone else in George Bailey’s life. Then he’s alive again, and the townsfolk get together to give him and his family the money so he doesn’t go to jail, and Clarence “gets his wings.”

First of all, hot take, the random people George prevented from making their own mistakes over the course of the movie aside, Pottersville seems like a way cooler place to live than Bedford Falls. There’s dancing, drinking, live music, it seems great! It says a lot about the worldview of this movie that the final, terrible moment that makes George repent for wanting to kill himself, as when Scrooge sees his own grave in A Christmas Carol, is NOT when he sees the grave of the brother he saves from drowning in the opening scene of the movie, but instead when he learns that his wife Mary (Donna Reed) is a single librarian. The movie gives us no indication at all that she’s unhappy, but George reacts to this state of affairs in approximately the manner of Lemongrab screaming “UNACCEPTABLE!” In that third act, I’m always struck by the fact that, as far as I can tell, George never actually admits what’s happening to him. He’s yelling about Clarence “hypnotizing” him right up until the moment his life goes back to normal. It seems inordinately stubborn under the circumstances, especially considering Clarence is never anything but up front about the whole Angel thing.

Perhaps more the point, for me It’s a Wonderful Life has always been about the push and pull between the upbeat tone and charm of most of it and the essential story, in which a guy just wants to get out of his small town, travel, and do something important with his life, but never, ever doing that, because of circumstances entirely outside his control. Refusal to accept angelic intervention aside, George is a smart, competent guy, constantly dragged down by the people around him. A charitable reading of the movie’s moral is that it’s not that George never achieves his dreams, it’s that he’s wrong about what his dreams are. It’s about him learning that he actually has done great things with his life, and just hadn’t realized it. I think my deep, deep resistance to that message comes from how I would say the same thing, which is that the movie is about George coming to terms with the fact that he’ll never be anyone special or important and that his own dreams are meaningless. Basically, nothing happens in the ending that should, in my opinion, make George any less depressed, but he’s magically not depressed anymore for reasons I don’t really understand.

So, enough of projecting my own issues onto George Bailey. At the time of its release, It’s a Wonderful Life was seen as a hiccup in the great career of its director, Frank Capra. Today, I think a lot of people see Capra’s movies as a window into the America they wish was still around, one where people are nice to each other and live in big old houses in rural small towns, get married, and have whole passels of kids. There’s a guy in this movie whose catch phrase is “Hee haw!” (to be fair, even the other characters think he’s annoying). But even at the time they came out, a lot of people thought Capra was too nostalgic and sentimental, and that in this movie he finally went a few steps too far. The great New York Times grump Bosley Crowther said the movie’s weakness was its sentimentality and “illusory concept of life.” Yet this is the same movie that more recent critics have given titles like “the most terrifying movie ever made,” and in a much more recent New York Times article, “a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams.” Perhaps it is the mark of a great film that lots of different people can get lots of different things out of it.

Given the status of It’s a Wonderful Life, it stands today as the most-watched movie of pretty much all of the great actors in it. Donna Reed plays Mary, the love interest and eventual wife (that New York Times article called her “oppressively perfect”), who falls for George well before he falls for her and has the memorable interlude where she ends up naked in a bush. Reed received the role after many other actresses turned it down, including Ginger Rogers (who, unusually, regretted this “mistake” in her autobiography). Reed went on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for From Here to Eternity and star as a, well, “oppressively perfect” housewife for years on The Donna Reed Show, for which she won several Emmys. 

There are couple of other big roles in the movie that aren’t played by members of the usual Capra repertory troupe. One is the villainous Mr. Potter, the richest and stingiest man in town, portrayed with cackling glee by the legendary Lionel Barrymore, who had been around so long his acting career pre-dated movies. He was cast in this role on the basis of the fact that at the time he was best known for playing Scrooge in annual live radio broadcasts of A Christmas Carol. Potter is basically Scrooge without the redemption at the end. Another is Violet, a very random character who is basically the town hussy, as my mother might say. She is played with slinky aplomb by Gloria Grahame, who was at the beginning of a bright career through the 1950s that would include many iconic film noir roles and her own Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful. Her career went downhill after a scandal caused by her divorce from director Nicholas Ray and subsequent marriage to his much younger son (her stepson), and you can now watch a movie about her very sad later days as her death approached in the early 80s, entitled Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Grahame is great in this movie, but I am confounded by Violet’s arc in particular, which seems to imply that she was going to leave town to find her fortune in New York, but now she isn’t, because… ???? Step three is profit.

It’s a Wonderful Life was mostly overlooked at the time, which isn’t to say no one liked it. The thing had a bunch of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The only Oscar it actually won was for the technical achievement of the new chemical process used in the movie to create snow, which was much more realistic than the previous way show was made on screen, which basically involved untoasted cornflakes. This movie was shot in Southern California in the middle of summer, but you’d never know it. Anyway, no one involved anticipated the movie having any sort of afterlife, until a clerical error in 1974 resulted in it suddenly and surprisingly falling out of copyright. This meant that through the late 70s and the 80s, every local TV station could, and did, show the movie for free as many times as they wanted. In 1993, Paramount successfully argued that new U.S. Supreme Court precedent allowed it to retain the copyright after all, but by then the “damage” had been done. Multiple generations of viewers were used to It’s a Wonderful Life being shown over and over throughout the holiday season, at a time when there were only like six channels tops. Few movies have benefited more from happenstance that took place decades after they came out.

But it takes more than just happenstance for a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life to achieve the status it has. It has to be a crowd-pleaser, to give people a reason to watch it over and over. This is a movie about good people, who care about each other, triumphing over (or at least not being beaten down by) bad people, who only care about money. Perhaps that is what we’re supposed to get out of the Bedford Falls/Pottersville dichotomy, that Bedford Falls is built on the relationships between its residents, while Pottersville is ruled, in the end, by the almighty dollar. In the end I have trouble making that leap that Capra assumes, that I really do trust and love the “other people” in Bedford Falls. Maybe if they didn’t lose so many random envelopes of cash, I’d have fewer trust issues. 

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