Frank Capra’s beloved American classic It’s a Wonderful Life truly needs no introduction. Ignored at the time of its release, it has since etched its way into our modern pop culture machine, where it has sat comfortably for decades and will likely remain until the end of time. It’s an essential holiday viewing staple, as well as a highly engrossing piece of post World War II cinema, and it is also my favorite film period, at least at the time of my writing this piece.
James Stewart landed his signature role here as George Bailey. A typical all-American protagonist circa the 1940’s, the film follows Bailey all throughout his life, as we bare witness to a parade of resentment and disappointments befalling him at every possible opportunity. He dreams of getting as far away from his hometown of Bedford Falls as possible, but never manages to escape it at any point during his lifetime. Eventually he marries a former classmate, played beautifully by Donna Reed, and they wind up living together in a rundown old house that once played a pivotal role in their courtship. But one fateful night, Bailey is pushed beyond his breaking point, and in the most well known portion of the story, it takes an angel named Clarence showing him what Bedford Falls would be like had he not existed, to show him the true value of his own life, as well as the audience the value of theirs.
Aside from being extremely well made, written, acted, and heavily re-watchable, one of It’s a Wonderful Life’s most appealing aspects is the overall message, which is something that touches me very deeply – the notion that every individual person is important, and we all have people in our lives that we leave an impact on. It might sound cheesy as hell to our more cynical contemporary sensibilities, but it’s a message that I think more people need to reminded of from time to time; I know I certainly could’ve afforded to have heard that during certain periods in my lifetime. And the idea that this is the only life we’ve got, and instead of miserably viewing it as settling for less, we should be more appreciative of all the greatness that surrounds us on a daily basis.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t subscribe to this homily all the time, but this is one of the few films that has had an observable external impact on my non-film viewing everyday life, and motivates me to try a little bit harder to take a step back and appreciate everything I’ve already got. Because how many of us have been in the position of George Bailey during our lifetimes? The feeling that we never got to do all that we wanted and the circumstances we’re currently stuck with are far below what we really wanted – it’s a universal feeling, and seeing it played it during the film leaves a very real impact.
This film might have a reputation for being pretty sentimental and heartwarming, but if you look at it again, a very different kind of picture emerges. The first hour and a half contains a very raw, truthful depiction of a person becoming progressively fed up with always getting the short end of the stick in life. It’s an essential journey both George and the audience must embark on together, which makes George’s ultimate redemption and overcoming these feelings in the end all the more powerful, because if he can find true happiness with it all, then so can we.
Also worth briefly touching upon is this film’s place in history, at least in relation to the social climate of the world during the time of its premiere. One of the most intriguing time periods in the history of cinema is the post World War 2 era, lasting from about 1946-1954. It was a time where all the world had just been shocked out of its mind, and one of the most expansive international conflicts had just been resolved, which was both a cause for celebration and lamentation alike. The cinematic form of escapism was at an all time high, as well as a resurgence of more reassuring dramatic fare. Along with films such as The Best Years of Our Lives and A Matter of Life and Death, It’s a Wonderful Life provides a comfortable yet sobering portrayal of an American lifestyle, here in the form of George Bailey. It’s infused with an observable post-war mentality which empowers the individual and sends a clear message that everything will turn out alright in the end. While countries like Japan would provide more challenging films in their post-war time, such as Late Spring, Rashomon, and the original Godzilla, English-language cinema was primarily concerned with reassuring the moviegoers that everything will be fine, while still acknowledging that horrors we had just finished facing together.
There are many factors in the lasting appeal of It’s a Wonderful Life, but however you choose to perceive it, at the end of the day it’s just a really sweet film to experience. At the very least, viewing it annually provides a welcome period of relief from the greed, frustration, and meanness we experience on a regular basis here in Pottersville.
Merry Christmas, everyone.