Review: “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Directed by: Frank Capra
Produced by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, Frank Capra (screenplay)
Cinematography by: Joseph Walker
Editing by: William Hornbeck
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Beulah Bondi, Joseph Kearns
Based on the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern
It’s almost impossible for me to hear the term “life-affirming” without thinking of something cloying or preachy. One of the few exceptions to this rule, however, is It’s a Wonderful Life — a film that, though undoubtedly now a Christmas season classic, is also a truly profound answer to the questions that may rise up as we go through life and its inherent trials.
A few years ago, after a surprisingly long time of not having seen this film, I was invited to a Christmas movie marathon by some friends who made this film a part of their lineup, giving me my first taste of the film in quite some time and also allowing many of our other friends their first ever opportunity to see one of cinema’s finest films, ever. What I had forgotten, though, and what my uninitiated friends soon began to realize, was that the film can initially come off as fairly bleak, with the main character, George Bailey, a man with aspirations of adventure around the world, experiences a series of misfortunes that keep him firmly planted in Bedford Falls, a small, mundane little town which is ever further falling under ownership of the miserly Mr. Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore, granduncle to Drew).
“This is not a wonderful life!” I remember somebody facetiously shouting out during our viewing.
Indeed, the film begins with the prayers of friends and family asking for protection and care over the apparently troubled George. We are then introduced to angels Joseph and Clarence, the latter of which is an avid fan of Mark Twain who hasn’t yet earned his wings. In order to earn his wings, Clarence is tasked with getting to know George and answering these prayers over him, but first he needs to get to know his subject. Using this as a framework, we get several flashbacks to George’s earlier life, beginning with his childhood. George saved his younger brother from a crack in a frozen lake, an event that led to an infection and the subsequent loss of hearing in one of his ears. Later on, we also get to see the passing of George’s father and how this obligates him to take over the family business, and, by default, stay in Bedford as well. His decision is reluctant, but he’s committed, if only to keep the Bailey Building and Loan and all its debtors from falling into Mr. Potter’s control.
George reaches a new low, however, when his Uncle Billy misplaces a large sum of money belonging to their business. Facing legal repercussions that will undoubtedly result in him never seeing the light of day, not to mention put his family and his town into dire straights, George lashes out at them and heads off into the night, where contemplates suicide while gazing into the icy waters below a snowy bridge. At the very least, his life insurance will be enough to keep his family afloat, he figures.
It’s easy to get lost in the despair of some of the film’s events, but there are several lighthearted scenes scattered throughout the film that keep the film from becoming too dark, and these are the ones that stick with you in the end — George’s pre-college flirtations with his future wife, Mary, and their later honeymoon in the rundown old home they had once thrown rocks at in their adolescence are particular highlights. The film is also very good at showing the audience just how selfless George is when it comes to his giving, both in time and money. That a good man like George should reach a point where he thinks he’s worth more dead than alive is a tragedy that the film makes clear.
Clarence, not being the brightest star in the sky, takes on a physical form and jumps into the icy waters before George can and, in turn, manages to save George’s life when the the selfless hero goes in afterward to save the drowning man. Clarence reveals himself to be an angel and grants George an eye-opening gift: to see the world as it would be had he never been born.* Though George is no longer in financial ruin and his full hearing ability has returned, he is also now a nobody with no friends and no family, and life is hardly better off in Bedford without George Bailey. His friends are lonely and troubled, his brother dead at a young age after falling in the ice, and the soldiers he saved later on in life also perished as a result. Poor Mary is a lonely “old maid” who stayed single all her life, and his mother has become a bitter old woman with no living family to keep her company. Bedford has also been renamed “Pottersville” and, apparently, was reinvented into a smaller version of Vegas.
Realizing all that he would be leaving behind and how important his life was to not just his town, but even to the world, George prays passionately to be returned to existence, crying out loud and repeatedly, “I want to live again!” And, as if a switch were flipped, snow begins to fall once again as George is returned to Bedford. His Bedford, where his business is about to fail, his ear can’t hear, and his mouth is bleeding from taking a punch to the face, but it’s also the Bedford where he has a loving family and a great number of friends who love him and who would do anything for him — including wrangling up all of the town’s spare change to cover the missing money from the Building and Loan and then some. And, as George looks out joyfully at his loved ones gathered around and celebrating their life together, he spots among the piles of money they gratefully placed before him an old copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with an inscription:
That George’s life has had value and purpose, and was, in fact, truly wonderful should have been apparent from the beginning, when we heard his friends and family praying over him. As we learn by the end of the film, our plans for our lives may not always turn out how we want them to, but riches aren’t always of a quantifiable nature, either. Sometimes we don’t even realize how important we were in making others’ lives better and more whole, too. This is one of those rare films that acknowledges the seemingly unbearable turns our lives can take while also pointing out the often easily overlooked blessings we have, as well, all without becoming cynical or trite. It’s a Wonderful Life, with its universal and genuinely touching message, its appealing actors, and wonderful storytelling, is prime candidate for being not just the best Christmas film ever released, but is easily ranked amongst some of the greatest films of all time, no matter what time of year.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 5 / 5