Arguably, Frank Capra’s greatest film, It’s a Wonderful Life is also his most misunderstood. Though the film did poorly upon its theatrical release in 1946, the American public, through television reruns and the advent of home video, has since adopted it as a perennial holiday classic, a wholesome family film that represents the Americanized construct of “the spirit of Christmas.”
The Christmas-time setting has proven a liability to the film’s reputation, often misrepresented as feel-good life-affirming fluff designed to make us all warm and fuzzy inside. It doesn’t help that new and superfluous DVD editions, issued seemingly every year around the holidays, only reinforce the film’s place in humanity’s arsenal of seasonal pick-me-ups. (This year’s two-disc “collector’s set”, which includes both black-and-white and colorized versions of the movie, is supposed to trump last year’s 60th anniversary edition.)
In fact, It’s a Wonderful Life is a dark and turbulent tale of surrender and sacrifice, of human frailty and defeatism, of that proverbial ledge from which hopes and dreams are thrown to the raging waters. It shares the theme of individualism prevalent in Capra’s earlier films: George Bailey (James Stewart), one of Capra’s fiercest individuals, is a dreamer and an idealist who claims early in the film that he’s “shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet.”
George yearns to leave Bedford Falls, escape the overwhelming crush of his small hometown where his father runs the local Building and Loan, and travel the world — but just like Longfellow Deeds in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, George’s attempts to transcend the status quo are foiled by forces bigger than himself.
To classify It’s a Wonderful Life as a beacon of American promise and spiritual cheer, however, is a fallacy. If anything, Capra challenges the accepted notions of American prosperity and its value system, a skeptical outlook that leads to one of the biggest existential crises of 1940s cinema. (That would be when George, out of his mind with guilt and defeat, prepares to jump from a bridge in the middle of an otherwise picturesque snowstorm.)
It’s a hallmark of American film, no doubt, but for reasons different than commonly purported — It’s a Wonderful Life puts these American ideals up for scrutiny to determine what happens when they fail a person. Call it a holiday classic if you must, but understand that it’s much more, as these three overlooked truths should illustrate:
1. Capitalism is evil. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the “richest and meanest man in the county”, is the epitome of the Capra villain, a heartless American capitalist who abuses his wealth and power for selfish reasons. He is a manifestation of the American Dream gone horribly right, his success based upon a lifetime of mergers, acquisitions, and takeovers.
The opposite of Mr. Potter’s callous empire is the Bailey Building & Loan company, which Capra salutes with not-so-subtle socialist overtones: the Building & Loan puts up its own money when it first runs into trouble, and in the film’s final scene, its customers pool together their own money to save it once again.
It’s at once a celebration of America’s collective opportunity and a condemnation of its misappropriated spoils. Ironic, then, that It’s a Wonderful Life is associated with the most consumer-driven time of the year. (Perhaps the greatest irony in regards to this truism is that the movie studios continue to repackage and re-promote the film on a yearly basis, digging deeper and deeper into their audience’s pockets. This latest version is notable for including the B&W and color versions, but the bonus features are out-of-date documentaries from years past, including a cheesy 1990 featurette hosted by Tom Bosley.)
2. Angels are duplicitous. Think Clarence (Henry Travers), the guardian angel sent down to save George from suicide, acts out of compassion and genuine concern? Think again. Clarence is on a mission to get his wings, plain and simple, which explains the lengths that he goes to in order to scare George straight and return to the soul-sucking grind of suburban life.
In fact, who’s to say that the nightmarish alternate reality Clarence presents to George (Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, a seedy den of strip joints, bars, and gambling, shot with frantic tracking, queasy close-ups, and Stewart’s eyes bulging out of his head) is a complete fabrication conjured only to help Clarence meet his goal?
3. Just because we’re all smiling doesn’t mean everything is going to be alright. The film’s final scene is its most famous: George, gathered around the Christmas tree with his family, dried blood still near his mouth, receiving the personal loans from the townspeople while a bell rings to signal Clarence’s success. Let’s not jump to the happily-ever-after conclusion, though.
After all, George’s redemption is merely a temporary salvation — the community comes through to save the Building and Loan from going under, but George’s business remains vulnerable at best, especially with a shark like Potter circling the waters. He remains a permanent resident of Bedford Falls, a town that has retained its little-guy charm largely from his influence, with his idealistic dreams of world exploration dwindling into regrets.
And so they say it’s a wonderful life not because it is, but because sometimes it takes a bit of a pep talk to rally ’round the tree one more time.