It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life ★★★★★

Part of Buddy the Elf, What's Your Favorite Color?

“Is this the ear you can’t hear out of? George Bailey, I’m going to love you till the day I die.”

George Bailey (James Stewart) was loved, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his affection was signed by the policeman, the taxi driver, the barkeep, and all the other citizens of Bedford Falls. Even the bank examiner signed it; and the bank examiner’s name was good for anything he chose to put his hand to. George Bailey was as loved as...well, as an angel.

It is a hoary old cliché to say that Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a sentimental ripoff of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a shamelessly sappy Yuletide paean to schmaltz and syrup, a piece of Capracorn. Ask many folks what they first think of at the film’s mention, and they will talk of Angel Second Class Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) showing George what life in Bedford Falls would have been like had he never been born; of George running down the snow-clogged streets of his quaint small town yelling “Merry Christmas!” to everyone and everything he sees; of a room full of well-wishers and a laundry basket full of cash and a heartwarming group rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”; of enough sugary platitudes to put one in a diabetic coma until Christmas next.

My question to those people, most of whom are speaking quite a genuine mix of foggy memories and received wisdom, is when they last watched It’s a Wonderful Life. Not snippets from it plugged into an Oscar clip reel or an AFI Top 10 list. Not fleeting glimpses caught from a background television while hurrying through various Christmas preparations. But the whole film, front to back, with undivided attention. The answer is usually a long time ago, perhaps not since childhood. For watching the film again, with fresh eyes and with the nearly two hours that precede that much-maligned happy ending, is a revelation. Capra’s film is a masterpiece, a picture of such warmth and humor and despair and sadness as is rarely seen in cinema. It is a film about the well-lived life, with all the wonderful and terrible things that implies.

Capra cleverly opens near the end before flashing back—but not with the “Auld Lang Syne” ending, or even with a despondent George Bailey on a bridge over troubled water. Instead, Capra shows the many buildings making up Bedford Falls, with sincerely voiced prayers of assistance for George, who is apparently in some bad way. It is an economical way of establishing his small-town-America locale and the audience’s sympathy with a man they have not even met. After some brief setup (veering near corniness, but retaining charm in its unlabored simplicity) establishing Clarence as George’s inept guardian angel—still waiting on his wings after 200 years—Clarence’s supervisor Joseph gives Clarence (and us) a glimpse into his ward’s life. It is a glimpse that will occupy most of the film, and one that is often overlooked in the rush to complain about the sappy finale.

Capra’s structure (working with screenwriters Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, and an uncredited Michael Wilson and Dorothy Parker) is rather ingenious and puts many of the Christmas Carol-lite accusations to bed. Despite that brief setup, Capra’s film is told mostly chronologically, starting with twelve-year-old George (Robert J. Anderson) in 1919 and moving on through the decades to the present day. Whereas Dickens’ tale starts out with a miserly old man and then gradually doles out reminiscences showing how he got there, Capra opts to show George’s gradual darkening in succession, establishing a much firmer sympathy for George that sustains even when the bleakness begins to overwhelm him.

More importantly, Dickens’ story is one of a terrible person redeemed by a confrontation with evidence of how terrible he has been, while Capra’s story is one of a fundamentally decent man in need of no redemption, but rather guidance—a reminder of the impact his decency has had through the years and how important he is to those around him. Dickens’ Scrooge is visited by ghosts showing him to be a miserable object of mockery whose death will be met with nary a shed tear. Capra’s George is visited not by an apparition—not by some deathly specter—but by an angel, a heavenly missionary showing him to be a beloved object of affection whose absence would lead to many a sorrowful conclusion. Though both eventually arrive at happy endings (after journeys darker than is often given credit), It’s a Wonderful Life is not an imitation of A Christmas Carol, but rather something altogether different—a reminder not of the hollowness of cruelty and avarice, but rather of the vast reach of a good man’s actions. Humane decency can so often seem futile, with self-abnegation leading to nothing but stasis and dissatisfaction. And moment to moment it is often just that—dull and unsatisfying and hopeless, as It’s a Wonderful Life (to its immense credit) does not shy away from showing. But in the end, kindness and generosity do have their reward and are not forgotten. Scrooge may make a late play for salvation, which is all well and good—his is a story of unearned mercy. But George Bailey makes the case for the Golden Rule as a blueprint for living—his is a story of justice richly earned.

Capra and Stewart create an incredibly deep, nuanced portrait of George throughout the years. Although he is nearly ascetic in his consistent decision to do the right thing, George is no saint. He does the right thing eventually, but not always instinctively and not always without consternation. To play such a role, from youthful innocence to middle-aged bitterness, from young romance and idealism to growing resentment, all while maintaining a baseline of innate goodness is a tremendous accomplishment. And accomplish it Stewart does in one of his finest performances, making George Bailey one of American cinema’s most indelible characters. Small moments throughout astound, bringing renewed appreciation for the vastness of Stewart’s talent: George’s simultaneous admiration of and disrespect for his father and his business choices at the Bailey & Bros. Building & Loan; his exuberant dancing with Mary (Donna Reed) at his brother Harry’s (Todd Karns) high school graduation party; his flirtatious banter with Mary on the trip home after their detour into the gymnasium’s pool; his resigned annoyance at Harry’s job offer from his father-in-law; his angry denial during his lovers’ quarrel with Mary upon her return from school; his exuberance on his way to his aborted honeymoon; his impassioned plea for solidarity and hyperopia after the bank run of 1929; his despair and fury when Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces a crucial $8,000; and finally, his gratitude at being alive once more following Clarence’s visit. The array of emotions, all grounded within a recognizable individual, is astonishing, and Stewart pulls it off flawlessly, with line readings of constant perfection. Every pause, every intonation, every gesture is perfectly observed. It is a neverending marvel of a performance.

Of course, Stewart is supported by remarkable turns across the board. Reed is a delight as Mary, full of verve and life, willful yet supportive. She is everything one could ever hope to find in a mate. Travers is charming as Clarence, playing him not as something miraculous but as a bumbling fool. “You look about like the kind of angel I’d get,” says an embittered George (never losing his sardonic humor even in his darkest hour). Lionel Barrymore, having had much experience playing a cruel miser in his many turns as Scrooge, is a wonderfully unctuous and diabolical Mr. Potter—a man who has never met a crisis of which he would not take advantage. (So powerful is Barrymore’s despicable performance that the FBI in a 1947 memo accused the film of promoting Communism. That the FBI was not entirely off-base in sensing an indictment of capitalism is one of the many pleasant mysteries of the film’s enduring appeal among the American public, and a testament to its overpowering greatness.) From top to bottom, the supporting players (Karns, Mitchell, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, Frank Faylen) create the sense of a lived-in, real-life community and make believable the dreamer George’s repeated decisions to stay put when that community is in distress.

Capra’s work is solid throughout and sometimes marvelous. George and Mary dancing the Charleston as the swimming pool threatens to swallow them up is a rightful classic, with the cross-cutting from head-on views of their delighted cavorting to side views of the ever-opening floor ginning up suspense and humor in equal measure. Most impressive of all is Capra’s selective use of close-ups. Most of It’s a Wonderful Life plays out in medium shot, capturing the goings-on between characters or life in the film’s quaint hamlet. But at crucial moments, Capra moves in tightly on his actors’ (especially Stewart’s) faces: George and Mary on the phone with Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson), forced to be near each other following an argument, the romantic tension reaching almost unbearable levels; George on the train platform greeting Harry and his new bride, Ruth (Virginia Patton), George’s happiness that his brother can finally take over the Building & Loan and give George an escape route melting into the unhappy knowledge that Harry must take the better job he has been offered; George again, after delivering an acid-tongued tirade to his family in the hour of his discontent, crushed at the blow he has delivered but no less angry or despondent than before his outburst, sorrow for one sin ladled on top of another. Capra demonstrates a deep understanding of classical film grammar and deploys it powerfully (the only demerits being the occasional choppiness in the editing, which are easily overcome by the strength of everything around them).

While working his way toward the shining light of a community coming together to save one of its own, it is the moments of darkness and humor and well-observed detail—often blended seamlessly together—that elevate It’s a Wonderful Life beyond a mere moralizing trifle. A plucky young George tries to spare his employer, Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner), from catastrophe when the man accidentally fills a child’s prescription with poison—only to be beaten bloody by the man in a heartrending misunderstanding. George and Mary flirt and banter, with George promising her the moon (“Just say the word. I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”) and Mary coyly wishing for something else altogether—only to have their dalliance cut short by news of George’s father’s stroke. George at home on Christmas Eve, hugging Tommy (Jimmy Hawkins) while weeping out of fear, warmly caring for Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) and her petals, lashing out at his family while Mary tries to maintain equilibrium—the humor and the horror of domesticity in one neat vignette.

That mixture of life in all its variegation—the good with the bad, the happy with the tragic—is what makes It’s a Wonderful Life endure. It is not simply a cheesy, contrived bit of Christmas cheer that Capra has in mind, but a thorough examination of one man’s life in all its ugly beauty. A happy moral can be found on any street corner in any town in America. But there is only one George Bailey. So Merry Christmas, movie house. Merry Christmas, Emporium. Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building & Loan. And Merry Christmas, George Bailey. You are loved.

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