It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). 130 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring James Stewart (as George Bailey), Donna Reed (as Mary Hatch Bailey), Henry Travers (as Clarence Odbody), Lionel Barrymore (as Henry F. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (as Bill Bailey), Beulah Bondi (as Ma Bailey), Gloria Grahame (as Violet Bick), H. B. Warner (as Emil Gower), and Todd Karns (as Harry Bailey).
It’s a Wonderful Life draws inspiration from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which supernatural visitors show the miser Ebenezer Scrooge his past, present, and future in order to convince him to reform his heartless ways. Similarly, in It’s a Wonderful Life, an angelic guide named Clarence uses a vision of an alternate present to demonstrate to the suicidal protagonist George Bailey how integral he is to society, and Clarence’s efforts rescue both George and his small town, Bedford Falls, from a dark fate. But the movie also strives to convince George of the American values that grew out of the Great Depression and World War Two, including the idea that successful human societies are about compassionate people giving up wealth and making other painful sacrifices to help secure communal welfare. It’s a Wonderful Life is probably Capra’s greatest statement of this social and political theme, and it has accordingly been rated by the American Film Institute as the most inspirational film of all time. However, its peculiar mixture of shiny optimism, oppressive pessimism, the supernatural, and wholesome small-town goodness ultimately makes it more akin to some of the weirder movies Frank Capra made in the 1930s than to modern and comparatively more sanitized holiday classics.
The movie opens in heaven as novice guardian angel Clarence Odbody prepares to descend to earth and rescue a man named George Bailey from suicide; if Clarence is successful, he will be given wings. As Clarence consults with the other angels, the movie flashes back to scenes from George’s life as a child, to the story of his marriage, and to his role in keeping the family business, the Bailey Building and Loan, afloat in the small town of Bedford Falls despite numerous financial calamities. When the town miser, Mr. Potter, sees an opportunity to put the Building and Loan out of business and corner the real estate market, he secretly steals money from George’s absent-minded uncle Billy, and when George learns that the money is gone, he spirals into a depression. Fearing financial ruin and jail time, George approaches a bridge at night with thoughts of suicide.
Just then, Clarence appears flailing in the water, and George jumps into the river and rescues him. It quickly becomes clear to George that upon emerging from the water, he has entered into an alternate present where he has never been born and the town of Bedford Falls has fallen into ruin. Clarence tells George that the community he witnesses has faltered specifically because he has never existed. When George regains the will to save his town and live, he is restored to the real present day and rushes home to greet his family and face his fate. To his surprise, the townspeople turn out at his home with their savings to bail him out of his financial dilemma. A bell ornament on the family Christmas tree begins to ring, and George’s daughter informs him that a ringing bell indicates an angel has been given wings. As the townspeople sing “Auld Lang Syne” together, George congratulates the absent Clarence on his success.
For most of its running time, It’s a Wonderful Life stands a world apart from the cheery fare most Americans have come to expect from holiday films. The movie is spiked with cruel actions undertaken by the banker Mr. Potter, who like a medieval vice character hovers maliciously over the main action, steals the Bailey fortune, and ends the movie unreformed (mercifully so, because while I did not like Mr. Potter, the thought of seeing him convert to goodness in the Bailey parlor in that final scene would have been too much to bear). But beyond Mr. Potter’s pointed malevolent acts, there is a more general, subtle, and pervasive sadness that runs throughout the film. From the movie’s beginning, we watch George Bailey slowly sink his dreams in an ocean of small-town problems. We see him as a child when he assumes the role of rescuer for his younger brother and his depressed pharmacist employer (he loses his hearing in one ear while saving the former from frigid waters, then prevents the latter from accidentally poisoning a customer). In spite of the morose circumstances in which we watch his youth play out, George openly and optimistically expresses his ambitions to see the world, and then we fast-forward to his days as a college-bound young man. But his family life interferes, his father dies, and he chooses, under pressure, to step in and fill his father’s shoes.
It will be temporary, he imagines, except that it will not be, and pretty soon his dreams of adventure and learning fade into the problems of helping people to build homes, restoring a dilapidated mansion for his wife and family, putting out proverbial business fires, and supporting his young brood. The characters’ dependency on George’s good mood, his financial beneficence, and his overall spunkiness is perhaps understandable, and he does not complain readily, but as he goes about his business with the weight of an entire town’s well-being on his shoulders, the conflict between his private desires and his sense of duty towards others compounds painfully.
It is not all so bad. There is the beautiful town; the (eventually) charming, refurbished home that he lives in with his children; and the lovely flowers on the sidewalk. And there is Mary, George’s wife, who loves and cares for him. The scene on their wedding night, when George has been at the office all day, has used their honeymoon savings to bail out the Bailey Savings and Loan, misses their train, and arrives at the old mansion in a shambles where she has made an impromptu dinner for them—complete with roaring fire, posters of the tropics, and exotic music—is very sweet indeed. But it is also a symbol of the kind of compromise that George will have to endure in his relationship, in his business, and in his dreams throughout the picture if he wants to support his community successfully.
In many regards, with its narrative full of missed opportunities, sacrifices, and personal disappointments, It’s a Wonderful Life could easily convince us that George is on a path bound for tragedy, paved by years of depressing circumstances and ending inevitably with a desperate need for permanent relief from the financial cataclysm his uncle dimwittedly initiates. But the way that the film meets the challenge of George’s spiraling depression and all of the desperation that that involves is to use a kind of deus ex machina—a divine intervention that neatly resolves George’s inner turmoil through kind magic. It is wonderful that it works, we might say, but it is hard to enjoy it without acknowledging how very weird it all is.
The movie’s supernatural element is well known to us long before George contemplates jumping from the Bedford Falls bridge. It’s a Wonderful Life opens with a star-studded sky high up in the heavens where a trio of angels (represented by twinkling lights) discusses George’s fate. The bulk of the movie is then a review, for the novice angel Clarence’s benefit, of George’s life from his childhood through his young adulthood, marriage, and Christmastime financial disaster until finally, only in the very last phase of the film, do we see George positioned on the bridge and Clarence’s intervention in Bedford Falls. The disembodied angels’ conversation is light, amusing, and even humorous, meeting the dark pessimism of George’s attempt to take his own life with angelic majesty, supernatural mystery, and sparkling mirth.
Down on earth, Clarence reinforces the comic chatter we observe in the heavens: we see his old-fashioned underwear, hear him rambling on about his life on earth and in heaven in terms that are incoherent to George, and notice his bulbous nose and jolly round body. This is not a six-winged seraph—indeed, Clarence does not yet have his wings—and far from frightening us, he behaves warmly, like an intimate (too intimate, perhaps, for the scene at Nick’s bar where Nick likely suspects George and Clarence of being gay and throws them out). The strange mixture of the high with the low, the light with the profound, ethereal angels with everyday humans, and divine love with self-hate makes for a peculiar mood indeed.
But things become even more peculiar as Clarence gets to work and attempts to save George. On the one hand, his persuasive efforts involve dispensing verbal advice, but I did not find this to be particularly effective as a solution to George’s suicide. For example, at one point Clarence observes while feebly invoking the film’s title, “You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?” But note that Clarence does not address what brought George to the bridge in the first place. Instead, he offers an assertion that George’s life is wonderful—not an articulation of what makes it wonderful or a defense of living, and not an attempt to reach George’s suicidal mentality by using language that acknowledges the reasons for his suffering.
Then there is Clarence’s primary persuasive attempt, in which he allows George to observe Bedford Falls in ruins. Through Clarence’s magic, George looks on in horror, Ebenezer Scrooge-style, at what his quaint town has devolved into in an alternate present in which he has never been born. The assumption on the part of the divine powers-that-be is apparently that seeing is believing or, rather, seeing is understanding—specifically, understanding why his suicide would be a great wrong. But the movie’s approach to George’s dilemma in this regard also seems limited, with George’s psychology during Clarence’s visit becoming oversimplified and too easy as George repeatedly expresses shock and horror at what comes of a life without him. It strikes me that a suicidal person needs more than the observation of cultural calamity to feel convinced that his particular life is necessary, good, and worth preserving and that continuing on, with all of the effort that that takes, is a better choice than simply ending it all.
It is also hard for me to believe is that God, in what Christians believe to be his infinite love for mankind, would attempt to persuade one of his creatures that he should keep on living because without him alive, a small town will urbanize with flashing neon lights, a miserly landlord, and a bar with patrons who are drunk and belligerent rather than merely sloshed and non-offensive. It’s a Wonderful Life makes explicit use of a spiritual framework, one that is clearly Judeo-Christian in nature, so it is not unreasonable to ask: isn’t George’s life valuable for more than just the purported good effect he has on society but because he as a human of any stripe has innate value and is worthy of love? The angel’s solution to George’s problem is to affirm that worldly affairs—specifically, communal and civic affairs and George’s role in them—come first, and to lessen George’s burden and ease his depression by reconfirming that George is divinely acknowledged (perhaps even ordained) to be a linchpin, bottleneck, and modern small-town American savior.
That is because It’s a Wonderful Life is largely about the preservation of small-town American virtue and how it is worth sacrificing for. It is therefore not surprising that George reaches his nadir before he contemplates taking his life on the bridge: we see him hit bottom when he comes home on the evening of having learned that his bank has lost thousands of dollars and that he could go to jail, sees his gaggle of young ones decorating a Christmas tree and feebly picking out notes on an upright piano, and lashes out at them in an unfeeling and embarrassing fashion, violating the Bedford Falls cultural mandate that the downtrodden remain spunky and chipper, especially insofar as their home life is concerned. Afterwards, he runs off to the bridge and nearly takes his own life when Clarence shows up and thwarts his plans—but really, Clarence could have intervened during that scene at George’s house as well, for that is when George betrays the movie’s general spirit of benevolence and goodwill. For this movie, lashing out in an angry tirade against a family with small children in a small town is a sufficient offense to warrant a divine intervention.
When George lashes out, he reinforces through his anomalous behavior the prevalence of an almost magical buoyancy evident throughout the remainder of the picture and so typical of Capra films, which here takes on the coloring of collectivist propaganda—a kind of socialism for the post-war era. It’s a Wonderful Life wants us to believe that one person can dramatically affect the destiny of an entire community. “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Clarence remarks to George at one point. The movie thus celebrates the individual’s power to shape the world while insisting on the integration of individuals within their wider societies. In many regards, the movie is a battle between George and Mr. Potter, two strong-willed individuals fighting over their distinctive visions of their town’s future, with Mr. Potter acting the part of the greedy, self-centered capitalist and George playing the role of the bleeding-heart humanitarian who sees himself as part of a larger framework. The sense that our towns need us, and we need them, is precisely what Clarence’s miraculous, Christmas Carol-like vision for George is meant to convey: without a George Bailey, the result is surly bartenders, rude drunks, seedy nightclubs with their promises of nude girls, flashing illuminated signs, and police activity.
But while Clarence’s salvific vision of the alternate present stirs George to his core and inspires him to embrace life once more, it also amplifies George’s burden to save his small corner of the world, a burden that he already perceives. Clarence’s solution to George’s suicidal feelings, while immensely flattering to George—who before his trip to the dysphoric version of Bedford Falls feels he is a liability and a failure—is also a kind of divine confirmation that George is responsible for supporting his corner of America and seeing it pull through as it sits so delicately on the precipice of encroaching disaster. This, in addition to our knowledge of George’s lost dreams and his suicide attempt, contributes to a high-pressure situation that seems encouraged to continue rather than to be thoroughly resolved. In spite of the story’s at times chirpy social optimism, this conclusion contributes its own lingering dark side to It’s a Wonderful Life that is inescapable in whatever context we consider George’s plight—be it personal, local, or national.
In the end, the small-town savior angle works for George even though it does not work for me. Clarence is presumably reabsorbed into the celestial plane, and George finds himself back in the Bedford Falls he momentarily left, rushing through the streets and greeting the landscape. He arrives home to his family, ready for jail or whatever awaits him, but is instead greeted by all of the townspeople, including the patrons of the Bailey Building and Loan—they have their money in hand and they want him to have it. This second miracle is instigated by his wife Mary, not Clarence, and it saves George’s business.
Perhaps we rejoice for George, knowing that his troubles are far from over but seeing the loving gestures of all of the people who care for him. I must admit that when recently watching the film, I teared up at the inexplicable loveliness of people pouring into the Bailey living room with their hands clutching nickels and dimes. There is something both beautiful and pathetic about their tiny sums being added to the pot, their desire to do something greater than any one of them could accomplish alone, and the reality that the beauty of this moment is fleeting—that in another week, month, or year the Building and Loan will likely face other challenges, possibly just as severe or even worse, that George and his uncle will not be able to bail themselves out of with a similar miracle.
The second miracle, the one that comes from the town itself, made me weepy in part because of its social component, and indeed, the outpouring of communal generosity is where the legacy of the New Deal social agenda of collectivism and social welfare is most evident—even more so than in Clarence’s miracle. That is, the miracle that keeps George alive comes from God, but the miracle that keeps George out of jail comes from his social network. Perhaps divine energies are working through George’s community, but the energy that we actually see moving through the community is bodily and financial, conveyed through their overwhelming physical presence as they cram into the parlor; their money being handed, piled, and poured onto a long table and into a gigantic general fund; and the swelling strength of their voices joining together to sing “Auld Lang Syne” as a group around the Bailey Christmas tree.
You could say that this movie is a spiritually minded Christmas story. But it would perhaps be more correct to say that it is a socialist-minded story about good citizenship masquerading as a spiritually minded Christmas story. It does not hurt to enjoy it as the former, but in the end, as it teaches George (and therefore us, too) about being a good leader in society against a backdrop of Christmas trees and ringing bells, it remains an unsettlingly sad movie that never fully resolves the sense that life, far from being wonderful, is actually very, very difficult and teeming with disappointment. What wonder we take away from the version of life presented in the movie is rooted in the fact that the sadness we see is punctuated by small acts of charity that are beautiful in their loving earnestness. If you choose to view those acts as the essence of what makes life meaningful, then perhaps it is a wonderful life. But as for the movie as a whole, it remains a sad, strange affair.