Confronting Evil, Determinism, and Death in 'It's a Wonderful Life'

James Stewart and Karolyn Grimes in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Exploring the darker core of a Christmas classic reveals just what is so wonderful about life.

It's a Wonderful Life

Director: Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
Studio: Paramount
Year: 1946
Release date: 2016-10-31


Frank Capra’s celebrated 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life is, perhaps, his and star James Stewart’s most recognizable film. Fully ensconced as a Christmas mainstay, it has come to represent the epitome of Capra idealism, replete with the characteristic Capra narrative trajectory: a man, pure of heart and marked by an ingenuous integrity, takes on the forces of corruption; he falters before the enormity of deeply rooted evil and is revitalized in his strength by the support of his neighbors and fellow citizens (representatives of the “common man”).

Can the shining light of liberty not be darkened by an “American dream” that's more and more reduced to the pursuit of filthy lucre (and moreover, lucre that inherently comes at the cost of the liberty of others)?
It’s easy to forget that despite five Academy Award nominations, It’s a Wonderful Life made a starkly unimpressive showing at the box office in 1947 (it lost $525,000 for RKO) and was the turning point in Capra’s career. The remainder of his creative life was marked by the growing disaffection of the public and critics, which led to his early retirement and ever-deepening embitterment.

The film met with deeply divided critical assessment and the entrenched takes on the film’s value continue to reverberate in its current reception. Time and Variety both found the film charming and indicative of Capra’s filmic craft. Variety claimed that the movie proved that Capra “can fashion what ordinarily would be homilizing hokum into gleaming, engaging entertainment for all brows -- high, low, or beetle.”

For other critics, the hokum wasn’t transmuted but simply remained insipid hokum. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times lambasted the “sentimentality of [the film] -- its illusory concept of life.” John McCarten, writing for The New Yorker, lamented that only Stewart managed to occasionally “escape from the sticky confines of the script with a bit of honest acting.” The implication behind both critiques is that the film is fundamentally dishonest, offering a whimsical dream in the place of reality.

The two poles of reception continue to find their advocates today. The resurrection of the film came through television. The medium made It’s a Wonderful Life a ubiquitous holiday presence and thus it seems to embody all of the sentimentality (syrupy or hard-won, depending on one’s point of view) we associate with the holiday season. For some, the film (and the season) offers a respite from the vicissitudes of the every day and presents an idealized vision of what the world might be like if only we allowed ourselves to be kind. For others, the film (and the season) is a false veneer laid over a far more complex reality and by embracing its charm we ignore at best and erase at worst the suffering, turmoil, and dire contention that characterize our society.

Some of the film’s admirers attempt to defuse this critical standoff by claiming that this is not really a Christmas movie. I think that's a false move, not disingenuous so much as misguided. It assumes that Christmas movies are inherently facile, devoid of social critique, and to be passively received without deeper consideration. This may be true of many Christmas films (I don’t consider myself an expert in the genre) but the best and most celebrated of these films all seem to me to have a darker side to them than that view allows.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) may strike one as a simple fantasy involving an encounter with a supernatural figure (Santa) who can grant a young girl her grandest wish and heal the wounds of her terminally disappointed and world-weary mother. On deeper consideration, however, the film is a disquisition on faith -- not in God per se, but in humanity and in the personal integrity of those with whom we work and live. The concerns Doris (Maureen O’Hara) expresses regarding the wisdom of maintaining ties with a man, Kris (Edmund Gwenn) who appears to be suffering from the delusion that he is Santa Claus seem well founded. How far ought we go in allowing faith to “be restored” before we are simply made dupes and even worse consequences ensue?

A Christmas Carol (1951) broaches even deeper concerns and is far more harrowing (particularly in my favorite realization of the story -- the 1984 television movie starring George C. Scott as Scrooge). One might dismiss the film as the story of a man forcibly redeemed through a contrived experience of nostalgia, pity, and the imminence of death. Scrooge becomes infused with the “spirit of Christmas” and increases the joy of the world. But consider the trajectory of the film (or the Dickens story itself, for that matter) and the extreme measures it requires to redeem a man who is greedy, yes, but not intractably evil. Sure, it all occurred in one night but required the ghost of an old friend, three spirits, and countless disturbing realizations. The film rightly suggests that moral improvement demands outrageous effort and is thus unlikely and justly celebrated when it occurs.

It’s a Wonderful Life has certain resonances with A Christmas Carol. George Bailey (James Stewart) is, like Scrooge, shown the impact he has on his friends, family, and neighbors through supernatural means. But Scrooge is taken to a past and present where he exists (and then, of course, a future in which he doesn’t). He witnesses things of which he was already aware or could have been had he sought the knowledge. George is offered the chance to see what the world would entail had he never existed at all.

This is a crucial difference and it's what imbues the film with its existential import and thus places it within the postwar concern for Existentialism as a means of grasping our place in the world -- or, more accurately, our ontological lack of place, thus demanding that we create a place for ourselves through our deeds, rendered in part from our will to belonging. To exist in the aftermath of World War II was to ask why anything exists at all. Why should there be something as opposed to nothing? Or is what we experience set upon by nothingness all the same?

Insofar as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of It’s a Wonderful Life, marked in part by a Platinum Edition of the film released on Blu-ray and DVD by Paramount, I would like to take this opportunity to explore some of the darker elements of this cultural icon. This is not to cast aspersion on the film. I have long adored It’s a Wonderful Life and have found myself defending its merits to naysayers and film buffs who feel that its very ubiquity is a sign of its devaluation.

The darker aspects of the film are, I believe, integral to its success as a film and make it, in my estimation, the most fully articulated and philosophically satisfying realization of Capra’s oft-maligned but beguiling idealism. Although, we will explore notions of the limits of divine involvement, the denial of free will, existential crisis, and the depths of evil as they appear within the film, my overriding contention is that these themes ultimately contribute to the positive and life-affirming message of the film that rises far above the dismissal of it as saccharine frivolity with no purchase on reality.

In what follows, in what I can only characterize as a labor of love and an effort to come to grips with an object of affection that I have savored for as long as I can remember, I will explore three issues: 1. the film’s representation of the “problem of evil”, particularly in how it treats the character of Mr. Potter; 2. the film’s view of the role of divinity and free will in human affairs, as revealed in the conversations with God and the figure of Clarence the angel; 3. the film’s take on death and existence, particularly with respect to the way in which an awareness of death (what Heidegger would term a Being-toward-Death) shapes one’s view of moral and social responsibility and the role of happiness in a proper mode of living.

Capra, Mr. Potter, and the Problem of Evil

In a United States embroiled in the cold war and McCarthyism (Capra was a target of HUAC but was never called to testify), Capra’s brand of idealism rife with social brotherhood, his vision of an America that was truly “of the people”, seemed out of step with the era of suspicion, increasing world dominance, and mutually-assured destruction. Capra’s “America” is a community, not a nation.

The FBI issued a memorandum on 26 May 1947 accusing the film of employing a “common trick used by Communists” in that it “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” The film was seen specifically as an attempt to “discredit bankers” by finding the antagonist of the film in the person of the predatory Mr. Potter (played with pestiferous aplomb by the formidable Lionel Barrymore).

Perhaps it's not surprising that Potter should be the point of contention for the FBI as indeed he becomes a central problem for an adequate understanding of the film. Barrymore’s depiction of the repugnant moneylender threatens to devolve onto purely melodramatic caricature. Despite George Bailey’s attempts to understand the source of his craven rapacity, Potter is never really humanized in the film. We never discover the causes of his covetousness. He remains an unassuaged figure of anti-social greed and unchecked power.

As a man of position, however, Potter can be read as a metonym for the increasingly global financial and political prominence of the United States. Indeed, Potter works both as a symbol of the power of the US in the world and the increasingly centralized power of the ruling class within the US in a culture that has become progressively mired in bureaucracy. If, as Capra seems to imply, a man who “controls the town” is inevitably corrupted by his position, if absolute power corrupts absolutely, then what hope remains for a post-WWII US in its bid to somehow insist on its simultaneous right to prominence and moral rectitude? Can the shining light of liberty not be darkened by an “American dream” that's more and more reduced to the pursuit of filthy lucre (and moreover, lucre that inherently comes at the cost of the liberty of others)?

Furthermore, in a cold war mentality of a zero-sum antagonism, of a world divided into “us” and “them”, even if we can overlook Potter’s role as a metonym for the rapacity of the elite, the fact that he seemingly continues to pursue his evil plans unchecked at the end of the film presents a further hermeneutic conundrum and one that's not to be avoided even by those in league with Capra’s communal sentiments. In the cold war world the day of reckoning must come and for Potter it simply doesn’t.

Imagining Capra through the lens of cold war logic (a logic of retribution to defend the Manichean divide between good and evil) seems nearly impossible or at least hilariously implausible. Indeed, one of the better skits on Saturday Night Live from 1986 features Dana Carvey as George Bailey in a “rediscovered lost ending” to It’s a Wonderful Life. In this alternate ending, Uncle Billy realizes that the $8k must have been taken by the loathsome Mr. Potter (here played by Jon Lovitz). So naturally the whole town marches over to Potter’s house where they proceed to give him a vicious beating. The sketch works in two, seemingly contradictory, ways.

First, it supplies a denouement that many viewers find lacking in the original. In Capra’s film, Potter never receives his comeuppance; there are no consequences shown for his felonious deed. He's characterized throughout the film as avaricious and cruel, but until that moment he always stayed within the bounds of legality. By stealing Billy’s deposit, Potter breaches the last boundary of decency remaining to him. His violation of civil law re-inscribes and furthers his constant abrogation of moral law. The malice of his pilferage becomes one more manifestation of his unsanctionable spitefulness toward his fellow man. Viewers often find this dissatisfying on a basic karmic level. The Dana Carvey sketch ties up that loose end through a savage, and brutally satisfying, beat-down.

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