It’s a Wonderful Film
As we are now safely outside of the Christmas Season, I think it is safe for me to write about one of the all-time great films, It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, I know most people would think this is a movie to discuss around Christmas as it is commonly cited as the greatest Christmas movie ever made. For years I have worked to avoid labeling it as such, for Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece is a far cry from a Christmas movie. Yes, it famously concludes on Christmas Eve and, yes, it was for quite some time aired on broadcast television on or around Christmas. Nevertheless, I want to clear the air so people can see this as not a Christmas film, but rather a film about man at the crossroads.
It may seem odd for me to be taking this opportunity to write a blog on It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that is slowly fading from our national consciousness. However, perhaps such a loss of knowledge of this classic work of cinematic art is a welcomed development, for it now allows us to approach the film with a new and more complete understanding of its thematic importance and artistic merit. I recently showed It’s a Wonderful Life to a dear friend who, ministers of grace defend us, had never seen the film before. “It’s like a Hallmark movie,” I explained, “if Hallmark movies were good.” The classic Frank Capra films of the 1930s, from It Happened One Night to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, all were sentimental and romanticized views of America. Each of them dripped with a particular vision of the American Dream that could easily be considered sanguine in our more cynical worldview today.
However, Capra’s work as a filmmaker was never naive and he did not approach his material with optimism–at least, not as that word is commonly used today. Capra’s oeuvre gives glimpse to a filmmaker who took the complexities and challenges of life seriously, but also with an eye to what is best in humanity. Capra’s films indeed play upon and arouse the same sentiments found in the trite works featured on The Hallmark Channel, but he imbued his cinema with intelligence, wit, and courage to address despair, injustice, and corruption in a manner that would admit to the fallen nature of our world and our humanity, but without reveling in it or settling for it. Capra believed in America, in the human person; his films similarly allow their audience to look through the challenges of this world and to see something beautiful and, indeed, wonderful.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, director Capra and his co-writers, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, have created a towering achievement in American cinema. Viewed within the corpus of Capra’s own work, the tale of George Bailey (enacted by James Stewart in his most iconic performance) stands remarkably apart from all the movies that preceded it and followed upon it. Both Capra and Stewart had served in World War II and experienced firsthand the horrors of that conflict. Capra himself is on record of having said that, upon returning to the States at the completion of his service, that he wished to make a quick western that would allow him to be removed from the realities of modern life. Instead, his first project would be a motion picture set in the heart of 20th century America.
While the events on screen mostly pre-date the most deadly global conflict in history, it is impossible to see this film as anything other than a product of that war. The character of George Bailey, especially as portrayed by Stewart, is an emblem of man in the wake of history’s most deadly conflict. Director and star have seized upon the post-war timeframe afforded to them to provide audiences with a character study. Far from the flaccid sentimentality associated with “feel-good movies,” It’s a Wonderful Life is instead an examination of the individual in a society marked by dehumanization. George Bailey may rightly be considered the most virtuous and heroic of main characters committed to American film, for his characterization is not that of unapproachable myth (like, say, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird), but rather a weak man who summons the strength to do great things in the simplest of ways.
Consider the reaction of George Bailey to the news that his younger brother, Harry (Todd Karns), has eloped and been offered a promising career away from Bedford Falls. Stewart and Capra allow their protagonist to experience resentment, disappointment, and selfishness even as he does the right thing and lets go of his dream so that his brother can pursue another one. In this, we see that It’s a Wonderful Life is primarily focused on the character of man–fallen man–and the demands of virtue. George Bailey is not unlike any other veteran of World War II, or really any other person, who forsook his own ambitions and aspirations in the service of the greater good. A lesser film would play these sacrifices as coming at no emotional or psychological cost to a man’s character, but rather the occasions for an ever-expanding growth in the soul. As veterans of World War II, both Capra and Stewart understood that such sacrifice will necessarily lead to existential doubts.
Perhaps the most thematically revealing scene in It’s a Wonderful Life is when George Bailey finally turns to God in prayer. A lesser filmmaker would’ve shown the despondent Bailey stumbling through town and happening upon a Christmas Eve church service, but Capra stages the prayer in a bar. The prayer consists of sentence fragments and an admission of despair, an abandonment and plea to the divine that seems utterly devoid of confidence. Yes, by the time the film ends, the prayer will be answered in ways that George Bailey cannot begin to recognize in that moment of darkness, but the filmmakers do not dress up this scene with any sentimentality. George is first visited with a punch to the face and then, considering this fact, his own conviction that his prayer meant nothing. Such a scene of honesty is not what one finds in a “Christmas movie,” but instead in a work that takes seriously the plight of man.
The punch that greets George’s prayer initially is not unlike the way in which each of us is tested in our faith. The man or woman who turns to God to seek the right path, but is then mocked, questioned, or confounded by the external world is George Bailey. Capra is documenting the story of modern man and considering seriously the temptations to despair and acquiesce, to abandon virtue and adopt nihilism. The greatness of It’s a Wonderful Life is not found in its happy ending, where George Bailey learns the truth of his place in the world, but rather in the fact that it takes seriously the fact that he has plenty of reasons to not accept that truth and to join in the ideologies and philosophies that devalue human life.
The central theme, the purpose of It’s a Wonderful Life is not to manipulate warm memories of Christmas or our idealized perception of that holiday, like a Hallmark movie would do, but rather to offer its audience a genuine consideration of the struggles each person confronts in modern life. The story and characters are a dramatic telling of each individual’s journey to the crossroad to decide whether life matters or not, and it does us the courtesy of honestly presenting the reasons to say it does not, while still beckoning us to realize it does. I encourage everyone to sit down and watch It’s a Wonderful Life with this framework and see that it is more than a Christmas movie, but rather a wonderful work of art.