The one film that is brought up time and time again during Christmas time and globally known as the Christmas film to watch. Following community hero, George Bailey (James Stewart) during his highs and lows in life, we see him in the lowest moment and guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers) shows him what Bedford Falls would be like if Bailey was never born. Directed by Frank Capra, it’s a classic tale about the loved ones you have around you and the love you have for them in return. We follow George falling in love with the beautiful Mary (Donna Reed) which is sparked in one of my favourite scenes in film history as they sing “Buffalo Gals” and talk about lassoing the moon. So what is it about this film that makes it so well loved?
For starters, the feel-good nature of the film is perfect for family viewings, especially around Christmas time. Another appeal is the film’s fearlessness in exploring darker themes such as capitalism, the loss of the American Dream and death by suicide. George Bailey isn’t portrayed as more than the ordinary American man. He is a character of high moral character and this makes his fall from grace even harder to stomach. James Stewart is remarkable as Bailey in what has become the definitive Stewart performance. Albeit a bit awkward when portraying a younger Bailey as he looks so much older but he pulls it off because Bailey himself is a man who is older than his years. Bailey hasn’t been blessed with an easy life as he loses his father at a young age and is forced to take over his father’s business instead of travelling but he takes to it and thrives. His wife, Mary (Donna Reed) does well to keep him grounded and motivated. She has her own strength as she is unafraid to stand up for what she believes in. Mary isn’t as straightforward as the audience would believe. She has a complexity about her when she disappoints her mother by marrying George rather than the successful Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson) or when she has to deal with remaining in Bedford Falls as George gives their Honeymoon funds away to avoid the bank’s closure. There is a lot of pressure on Mary to support both her husband and the family home, especially in the midst of a crisis. Even when George is angry, she refuses to let him get away with it while at the same time remaining composed and compassionate.
Onto the sidekick side of things, Henry Travers captures Clarence’s purity perfectly. From his fascination with the stories of Mark Twain to his inability to mask his angel status, Clarence is a beloved character in film. In a community where George is seen as a guiding light, it is only Clarence that can save him from himself. Clarence is completely sympathetic and importantly empathetic with George’s problems. The audience watches the life of George Bailey through the eyes (literally and figuratively) of Clarence. With every classic hero there has to be a villain. This comes in the form of Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who owns nearly every business in town as well as a large portion of property, meaning that he owns its residents also. He is a depiction of the greed and capitalism that prevents the American Dream and leaves those who long for it struggling for the rest of their lives. He is a miserable old man with no family and friend and is only surrounded by his employees. Where George sees friends, Potter sees customers.
There is something nostalgic about watching this film. Not simply from watching it a thousand times since I was small, but something distant about the simple way of living in Bedford Falls. At its heart, It’s a Wonderful Life is in itself a simple film but it is only made complex when those who dare to dream almost thrive and are then shot down. The lovely touch of including Clarence, an angel who has yet to earn his wings, brings in a bit of magic while Capra’s clever direction keeps the magic to a minimum in a bid to make the film as real as it can be. In some ways, his vision of Potter is reminiscent of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol before he is visited by ghosts. It’s just as beautiful in black and white as well as colour, it will always leave you in tears of laughter and sadness.
What It’s a Wonderful Life does so well is its neutrality in portraying the ordinary American life but showing the extraordinary achievements that a community can make together. It’s a film about the importance of family, being loved and loving others. There are many aspects from the film that could be brought through to today such as Potter’s ideals. It could be argued that most people live in Pottersville in this day and age. In a time of great challenge, it is nice to watch a film that shows people overcoming the odds. It’s a film that can never date because its a film about humanity and the chasing of dreams. I would forever argue that this is the best Christmas film because there is no grandeur in it and no attempt to be a big shot and big budget superstar film. It is a humble story of how one man’s life touches that of his family, friends and the community at large. George is a small piece of a much larger puzzle and it is only when he realises his own self-worth that he recognises the ability to pull the community together to stop Potter from destroying the town with greed.
What do you think about It’s a Wonderful Life? Let me know in the comments below!