We Love… Christmas: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Illustration by Adeline Pericart

Throughout December we’ll be adding more Christmas films we love – so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own…

 

It’s a Wonderful Life

Scott Townsend

‘Sentimental Hogwash! shouts the malevolent Mr. Potter halfway through Frank Capra’s festive classic, and if you haven’t seen it, or are basing your opinion on half-remembered viewings in Christmases past, you might be inclined to agree with him. At first glance, It’s A Wonderful Life resembles Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol redone by Happy Days. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a well-meaning, small-town dreamer whose life has taken one unfortunate turn after another, leading him to a Christmas eve prayer which is answered by an angel named Clarence, who shows him why his life is worth living.

After the corny, overtly religious opening in which two angels (read: flashing lights dressed up as stars) discuss George Bailey’s predicament, we are treated to a selection of greatest hits from his life in the wholesome American town of Bedford Falls, leading up to that night. He goes partially deaf as a young child. His father dies the night before George is due to leave for a round-the-world trip and a college education, leaving him in charge of the family business while his brother takes his opportunities, shortly before becoming a war hero. The depression hits his small-town on the night he is due to take his honeymoon, forcing him to use his savings to keep the business afloat. Finally, an honest financial error on Christmas Eve leads him to almost certain bankruptcy, scandal and prison. Despite constantly working hard and putting others first, George Bailey is consistently thwarted in his attempts to follow his dreams, and plans to kill himself so his family can cash in his life insurance policy. As Phoebe from Friends once accurately pointed out, it should be called ‘It’s A Sucky Life and Just When You Think It Can’t Suck Any More It Does!’ Feeling good yet?

In the real world, the situation was equally bleak. Capra (who would later go on to be a commie-baiting coward) convinced a shell-shocked, post-war Jimmy Stewart to come out of retirement for the film, which was ultimately something of a disappointment. It was well received critically but failed considerably at the box office, gaining five Academy Award® nominations but no prizes. It was only when somebody allowed the copyright to lapse that the film became a festive classic, being shown repeatedly on US TV stations wanting to avoid paying royalties. Years later and it’s a holiday staple, despite representing an ever increasing spiral of depression and misery.

Yet here’s the thing – the last half hour or so of the film transforms it into something else entirely. Clarence the angel shows Bailey what Bedford Falls would be like had he not existed – a hellish Film Noir dystopia, populated by drunks and lowlifes steeped in poverty. The supporting cast (which includes a cop named Bert and a cab driver named Ernie, trivia fans) play alternate versions of themselves, and we’re given a glimpse of the effect that one man can have on those around him.

If you’ve never seen it, then I’ll try not to spoil it any more. Rest assured, the ending is the key here. For all the preceding despair, portrayed with overlooked subtlety by Stewart, clashing so perfectly with Capra’s reactionary idealism, the ending is so impossibly feel good that I burst into tears as soon as the words ‘…the richest man in town’ are uttered. Every single time.

Yet while the final five minutes represent some of the most euphoric cinema of all time, when you finally finish crying with joy, forget the ringing bells and think hard about the outcome. Bailey probably never will leave Bedford Falls, and could still technically go to jail. Potter never gets his comeuppance. And which do you think was closer to the real working class 1940s America – the picket fences and friendly neighbourhood establishments, or the alternate main street lined with bars, casinos and burlesque houses? This sublime mix of darkness and light is what makes It’s A Wonderful Life so enduring, endlessly re-watchable and appealing. It’s cinematic mulled wine – warm, sweet and intoxicating, but with a spicy undertone. And a killer hangover.

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