“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. At its heart, It’s a Wonderful Life is not about an artificial crisis with a happy ending, a good man in dire straits rescued by a cherubic angel and by those who love him. It’s about frustration, sacrifice, compromise, oppression, temptation, and loss — a lifetime of it. It’s also about how such a life can be a life well lived. A wonderful life.
For all its sentimentality, Capra’s film idealizes neither its protagonist, Jimmy Stewart’s beloved George Bailey, nor its picturesque small-town setting of Bedford Falls. There is a darkness to George Bailey, a man who kicks his car door in front of his wife Mary (Donna Reed) over how his life has turned out in contrast to wealthy, jet-setting Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson); who is haunted by the mocking memory of his own youthful ambition and cockiness (“What is it you want, Mary? You want the moon?”). It is not surprising, in a film of this period, to see a misbehaving character receive a salutary sock in the jaw; more surprising is that Stewart’s hero is on the receiving end of the sock.
In one way or another, George suffers from ambivalence, if not resentment, about every aspect of his life. The crummy little town he faces every morning without ever having seen the Parthenon or the Colosseum. The cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan with its shabby little office in which he spends his days. The daily business of nickels and dimes, spending all his life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe instead of building skyscrapers and bridges. There is even ambivalence regarding his marriage and family life, which ties him down with responsibility and roots him in Bedford Falls. The drafty old barn in which they live (epitomized in the broken bannister finial that he nearly throws the umpteenth time it comes off in his hand). On the worst night of his life he even asks in frustration, “Why did we have to have all these kids?”
On some level George never wanted marriage at all. From the outset he was of two minds: He allows his mother (Beulah Bondi) to point him in the right direction to go to Mary as he contemplates passionate necking; then he turns and walks the other way. His wandering feet take him to downtown Bedford Falls, where he tries to entice the vampish Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) with talk of a dreamy, scandalous night of walking barefoot in the grass, swimming by moonlight at the falls, and watching the sun rise. Violet and Mary represent opposite possibilities: romance without responsibility versus domestic commitment. George is drawn to both — but Violet doesn’t understand what he wants from her, while Mary knows what he really needs.
Over all this looms the bloated bulk of Lionel Barrymore’s Henry F. Potter, whose ruthless avarice is the bane of the Bailey family and 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 (Samuel S. Hinds) died fighting to buffer the citizens of Bedford Falls from Potter’s tightening grip. Potter is not a lone, dissonant source of evil in an otherwise idyllic world. Take the nearly fatal accidents involving George’s brother Harry and Mr. Gower the druggist (H.B. Warner), who beats young George in a drunken rage. And, of course, there’s also the Great Depression and World War II.
Tragedy and ruin are always right around the corner; only the actions of people like George offer the hope of anything better — not only George, but also his father, his war-hero brother Harry (Todd Karns), his wife and mother (who join the Red Cross), and, in the end, Sam Wainwright, whose wealth and friendship save George from ruin. There’s also the faith of the people who accept small loans when the Depression hits rather than ruin the Building and Loan or go to Potter for 50 cents on the dollar. Pottersville, the dark alternate reality that exists in a world without George Bailey, isn’t the result of something going fundamentally wrong with the world. It’s simply the way the world goes if no one prevents it from doing so. It’s a Wonderful Life epitomizes Edmund Burke’s famous maxim that nothing more is needed for evil to triumph but for good men to do nothing.
And yet George’s life isn’t simply useful or necessary, as if he were a tragic hero, a sacrificial victim to the common good. It is also rich and full. To begin with, he has the love and devotion of lovely, luminous Mary Hatch Bailey, as well as their four children. Among the many things George sacrifices throughout the film, along with his trip to Europe and his college education, is his honeymoon in New York and Bermuda with Mary. But it isn’t George who sacrifices the honeymoon: It is Mary, who unhesitatingly offers the two thousand dollars for their trip to save the Building and Loan as George pleads with his people not to panic. Then, while George takes care of business, Mary turns on a dime and makes alternate arrangements for their wedding night: not in style, certainly, but deeply romantic. In the months and years that follow, she transforms a dilapidated ruin into a lovely home and continues to support George’s work — for instance, helping to move the families George helps, such as the Martinis, out of the miserable slums of Potter’s Field into the pretty little homes George builds in Bailey Park. That’s the kind of woman George marries — who tells him, in time, that she wants her baby to look like him.
George might rather be designing bridges and skyscrapers than pretty little suburban homes in Bailey Park, but his work isn’t without reward. It’s a Wonderful Life wouldn’t be complete without that joyously chaotic depiction of the Martinis’ move. The ritual housewarming, with symbolic gifts of bread, salt and wine (Mrs. Martini crossing herself as she receives the gifts), is a periodic rite in the liturgy of George’s life. The scene may end with George kicking his car door as Sam Wainwright drives away in his magnificent Duesenberg town car (George kicks the door of a modest Dodge Brothers Touring car) — but George, not Sam, is the more enviable figure. In the end, it’s good to know Sam Wainwright, but better to be George Bailey.
Sam is important for various reasons. It’s a Wonderful Life can be seen as an inversion of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, another Christmas tale 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. Where A Christmas Carol redeemed the rich man, It’s a Wonderful Life vindicates the poorer family man. It is hard to believe, today, that the film was labeled Communist class-warfare propaganda in an FBI memo and House Un-American Activities Committee sessions because Potter, the wealthy banker, was the heavy. Of course, not only were George and his father both bankers, Sam might have become as wealthy as Potter.
It’s hard to pin down It’s a Wonderful Life to a single genre. There are rollicking scenes of slapstick comedy and dark scenes evocative of film noir. There are elements of religious fantasy, romantic melodrama, fictional biography, and morality play or “message picture.” In a decade that included the likes of The Bishop’s Wife, Woman of the Year, Citizen Kane, The Naked City, etc., It’s a Wonderful Life is a sort of pastiche of tones and styles of its time. Like many people, I watch It’s a Wonderful Life with my family every year at Christmas, and every year I’m dazzled by Capra’s masterful direction and camerawork. The use of the circular speak hole in the frosted transaction window at Mr. Gower’s drugstore to catch the old man drinking, for instance. Or the clothesline in the bridge toll house where George and Clarence dry off, dividing the screen in half: Clarence’s head above the line, George’s head below it, with the line as the border between heaven and earth.
If the film stumbles at all, it’s at the end of the Pottersville sequence, as George comes to grips with the impact of his absence in this world. The last misfortune of this world falls on Mary Hatch, here a timid old maid with spectacles, a hat and hair pulled back in a tight bun. This is an injustice to a vibrant character, and gives George too much credit for holding the whole universe together. A more challenging move would have been to depict Mary married to Sam, financially secure and comfortable, giving George one dreadful moment of doubt whether Mary is better off with him. But then perhaps Mary is not really in love with Sam, not really happy the way she was with him.
Like many Christmas films, It’s a Wonderful Life has little to do with the real meaning of Christmas, apart from St. Joseph in heaven appearing in voiceover, Janie practicing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” on the piano, and a rousing chorus of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” at the end. The movie even perpetuates the popular folk eschatology about people becoming “angels” when they die, rather than saints. But the action is set in motion by the polyphony of prayers of George’s loved ones (including Martini’s invocation of Jesus, Mary and Joseph). And while George confesses in his desperate prayer that he’s “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 residents of Bedford Falls.
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.