“A figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes,” New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in 1946. “A terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams,” another New York Times writer wrote in 2008.
Neither description is even approximately correct. Variously celebrated or castigated for its sentimentality and schmaltz or for its darkness and subversiveness, It’s a Wonderful Life is wiser, richer, and deeper than many of its fans and nearly all of its critics allow.
A flop in its original release, rediscovered (in the wake of a fortuitous lapse in copyright) on television in the 1970s, embraced as a holiday staple by the 1980s, and finally enshrined as an untouchable classic, it was inevitable that Frank Capra’s crowning achievement should become a target of iconoclastic reevaluations: some take-downs, some perverse reinterpretations.
The truth is that It’s a Wonderful Life is both darker and more subversive than its popular reputation as cheery holiday “Capra-corn” would suggest, and more robustly hopeful than cynics and hipster deconstructionists would have it.
It’s true that Henry Travers’ whimsical Clarence Oddbody, angel second class, reflects tritely on the significance of George’s life. “Strange, isn’t it?” he muses. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Then, in his final message to George, “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”
These universal, reassuring bromides bely the film’s celebration of a life that is far from typical: an extraordinary, heroic life, the absence of which leaves a hole far more awful than most of us would leave.
Vatican Film List (article)
Perhaps the most beloved of Christmas movies, Frank Capra’s sleeper classic It’s a Wonderful Life has inevitably become a target of seasonal, iconoclastic culture-warmongering.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.