It’s really a shame that Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t remembered in time to be saved from the deep dark pits of the public domain. Now any hungry television network can get its dirty hands on the film and show it as much as they please. But in a sense, all of this is a blessing as well. If it weren’t for those repeated airings of the film, it wouldn’t have become a holiday staple. What was once a post-war commercial and critical flop has now become a cultural phenomenon. It’s a Wonderful Life is a film that you cannot simply frown at. Its likability only gets better with time, like how great music only gets richer with familiarity.
The hero of this film, George Bailey, played graciously by James Stewart, is a man who dreams of shaking the dust off his shoes and exploring the world. But George’s constant drive to do the right thing prevents him from pursuing his dreams and confines him to his birthplace, Bedford Falls. One thing or another always comes in the way, the biggest being his responsibility for the family savings and loan association which is the only thing standing between Bedford Falls and the disgustingly avaricious Mr. Potter. George also has a family, consisting of his high school sweetheart Mary and their four children, which he cares for selflessly.
George’s early life is told in a series of flashbacks and in each of these flashbacks appears Mr. Potter and Mary, posing two sides of George, his desire for fame and fortune, and his desire to do right thing for his community. It is the latter that prevails but for most of the film George is not rewarded for doing the right thing. Instead, he’s punished. When George saves his brother from drowning in a freezing lake, he loses the hearing in his left ear. When he warns his boss of a potentially fatal accident, he is beaten. When George’s father passes away, he must take responsibility for the family association and give up an opportunity to go to college. When there’s a run on the bank, he is forced to abandon his honeymoon. All of these sacrifices for Bedford Falls doesn’t bring George closer to his community, quite the opposite happens. He feels trapped and isolated, and to some degree even lonely.
Despite all of this burdening responsibility and personal wounds, George is able to remain resilient until the final nail in the coffin. His incompetent uncle misplaces $8000 worth of bank funds during the Christmas season which could lead to George’s arrest for fraud. George’s life quickly declines into pain and frustration, he goes home angry and frightens his children. He goes to a bar to pray, only to be dragged into a bar fight. George, not being able to take life anymore runs to a bridge where he contemplates suicide but is intervened by his guardian angel Clarence. Clarence, not only saves George from suicide, but shows him what Bedford Falls would be like without him. What we see, is a nightmare. Instead of the simple, yet joyous and welcoming nature of Bedford Falls, we are treated to the twisted Pottersville, where everything has become perverted symbols of exoticism and crass commercialism. When George finally gets his old life back, he is granted with generosity and kindness from the community, who bail him out with all of their money. The film then ends with everybody, even the cops who came to arrest George, singing together in perhaps one of cinema’s most beautiful sequences of all time.
Although the film’s conclusion is unbelievably touching, you have to realize that in fact none of the circumstances in George’s life have changed at all. He still has to live in his crummy little house and scrape every possible cent to support his family. His business, despite being bailed out, is still on the brink of being consumed by Mr. Potter’s growing power. Hell, Mr. Potter, the main antagonist of the film, suffers no consequences at all throughout the entire film. The film promotes something more profound, a message of hope and perspective.
Frank Capra, having just arrived back from World War II, wanted to do something special with It’s a Wonderful Life. He wanted to promote the lives and dreams of ordinary Americans, who all sacrificed those dreams to do the right thing in a time of such despair. Instead of appraisal, Capra was treated with a surge of punishing and scathing reviews, much like George in the film, criticizing his ideals of hope as being shallow and naive.
I beg to differ. In a time where the dilemma between individualism and public virtue has become more apparent than ever, hope can be a cathartic attitude to have. We all at some point in our lives will face George’s situation. We see the world as a place filled with priceless opportunities and yet the responsibilities of family and community will always drag us back, begging us to sacrifice a piece of ourselves and crushing any dreams or plans we had in mind. That is why a message of hope and perspective is not so shallow or naive. None of the dilemmas or problems in the film have been resolved. This is wonderfully showcased by the recurring motif of the broken finial on George’s staircase. Hope is finding comfort and resolve in a life with no assurances or guarantees. It’s a Wonderful Life shows us that a change of heart and perspective on the tribulations we go through everyday can be truthfully revolutionary.
With this deeply profound and enlightening message, as well as dozens of unforgettable scenes filled with warmth and humor, It’s a Wonderful Life deserves a spot on our television sets every Christmas, even if the damn thing has been shown countless times. It’s a Wonderful Life most definitely gets an A+.
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