“No one is born to be a failure. No one is poor who has friends.” These platitudes, plastered across the packaging of home-video editions of Frank Capra’s evergreen Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, embody the film’s popular but misleading image as sentimental, schmaltzy “Capra-corn.” Yet the film itself is leavened by darker themes and more rigorous morals about self-sacrifice, disappointment, and the fragility of happiness and the American dream.
Like another popular Christmas story, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life is in part about an oppressive relationship between a cruel rich man and a sympathetic, less well-to-do family man, that results in supernatural intervention and an alternate vision of reality. But where A Christmas Carol was about the redemption of Scrooge, It’s a Wonderful Life is about its Bob Cratchitt, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), and his heroic virtue and consistently selfless choices, his dark night of the soul, and his ultimate vindication.
In a way, it’s actually a rather grim tale. The life of George Bailey (James Stewart in a career-defining performance) is a study in hardship, frustration and lost dreams. Time after time, happiness seems just around the corner for George, only to be lost at the last moment. More precisely, George consistently chooses to give up on his dreams for the sake of the greater good: his dreams of traveling to Europe; his college plans; even his Bermuda honeymoon.
Looming behind all of these lost opportunities is the bloated bulk of Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), whose ruthless avarice is the bane of the Bailey family and the town of Bedford Falls. Potter says that George’s father was “not a business man, and that’s what killed him,” but the truth is that the elder Bailey died fighting to buffer the citizens of Bedford Falls from Potter’s tightening grip.
It’s a Wonderful Life does not paint an idyllic world with a single dissonant threat to be stopped from artificially ruining things. There are also the nearly fatal accidents involving George’s brother Harry and Mr. Gower the druggist, Peter Bailey’s death, and of course the war itself. In this world, tragedy and ruin are always right around the corner, and only the heroism of men like George Bailey offers any hope of something better. The dark alternate reality of “Potterville” is not the result of something going fundamentally wrong with the world; it is simply the way things would be had someone not prevented them. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Like many Christmas films, It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t really have much to do with the real meaning of Christmas, apart from St. Joseph in heaven appearing in voiceover. The movie even perpetuates the popular religious confusion about human beings becoming “angels” rather than saints when they die.
Even so, the movie's milieu is more recognizably spiritual than A Christmas Carol and most of its ilk. The film is set in motion by the prayers of men and women all over town offered for George Bailey. And while George himself confesses to God in his darkest hour that he is “not a praying man,” what he does in its own way reflects the Christmas story: He empties himself out of love, becoming poor for the sake of his people, the citizens of Bedford Falls.
It’s a Wonderful Life is now available in Blu-ray, with a making-of featurette as the main extra, along with a theatrical trailer and (cough) the colorized version of the film. Other editions include the one-disc 60th anniversary edition and a two-disc collector’s edition. None of these editions really gives this film the lavish treatment it deserves.
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.