It is the movie against which all other Christmas movies tend to be measured; the movie local cinemas are most likely to screen as a festival-themed attraction outside of the latest sparkly family fare; the movie regularly cited by people as their Christmas favourite. Yet Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (U) happens to be a 1947 black and white tale of how American small town Christian values triumph amidst life’s trials. Nevertheless, in the hard-wired, high-tech Twenty First Century, It’s A Wonderful Life remains a celebrated film that still holds its own.
It wasn’t always thus. When It’s A Wonderful Life was first released, although it was star, James Stewart’s post-war comeback movie, it only fared moderately well at the box office. It’s ‘Christmas classic’ status evolved through repeated showings on television in the run up to the festival once it had gone out of copyright and proved cheap to broadcast. Viewers warmed to it. In the same way that many people annually reread Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to watch It’s A Wonderful Life has become part of the Christmas ritual.
Interestingly, there is a mythic/fairy tale quality about both. The turning of the pages at the beginning of the film even suggests that the audience is being introduced to an age-old fable. And the message that the individual can be heroic, a force for good whatever their circumstances, that what each of us does matters is a very potent one.
Whereas Dickens’ novel redefined the meaning of Christmas for Victorian readers, It’s A Wonderful Life continues to inspire we who live in the cinematic age. (The digital age has yet to reveal anything comparable.) Clearly Capra’s classic is of its time, its assumption of the inherent rightness of caring capitalism reflecting the political mores of a western world recovering from the Second World War. (Ironically, the way Stewart’s George Bailey manages his savings and loans company has in itself proved a rejoinder to the workings of our own financial culture.) Yet the film’s context is also explicitly Christian.
Bookended by the Liberty Films company’s chiming belll, a motif itself redeemed by the film into suggesting heavenly celebration, Bailey’s rescue from the pit of despair at the impending loss of all he holds dear (“He’s worse than sick, he’s discouraged”) takes place on Christmas Eve. The film opens onto a view of the rooftops of Bedford Falls, the soundtrack is of George’s wife, his children, his relations and friends praying with all their might for God’s protection for the desperate man.
And prayer is seen to work. Perhaps It’s A Wonderful Life’s most heartrending scene – which moved James Stewart to tears when it was shown during his televised interview with Michael Parkinson in the Seventies – is of George seated at a bar, almost out of his mind at the thought of the impending financial ruin caused by the disappearance of a then massive $8000 from his loan company’s coffers, and struggling for the words to ask for help from God. The subsequent appearance of “angel – second class” Clarence (Henry Travers) represents God’s response.
For someone with “the IQ of a rabbit, the faith of a child”, Clarence’s jump into the river is a stroke of genius and sheer chutzpah (the last thing a self-obsessed potential suicide about to drown expects to view from the bridge is someone else flailing in the water below, crying for help). It also embodies the Christian principle of being prepared to lay down one’s life so another might live, and strikes directly at George Bailey’s heart. For George cannot stop helping others regardless of the cost to his own plans and dreams.
That is his downfall and his salvation. George’s lifelong ambition of doing “something big, something important”, his dreams of escaping “this crummy little town” are continually thwarted, as much by his own selfless acts as by circumstances beyond his control.
Even his honeymoon in New York with the devoted Mary (Donna Reed) loses out to his concern that his customers are not bought out by a greedy banker, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
It is as if there is an invisible barrier around Bedford Falls that George cannot penetrate. There is horror in the limitations enforced by small town life, and clearly his anger, violence and self-hatred that erupt at a moment of crisis have been repressed for years. (This is almost as feel-good a film as Slumdog Millionaire…)
Yet the very reaching out to others that has sealed his fate ensures that George’s friends and family are there for him, too, at his time of need.
In gaining spiritual maturity in coming to terms with the life marked out for him, George Bailey is also assured that he is not alone.
(An earlier version of this piece first appeared in The Church of England Newspaper.)