It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)


James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Henry F. Potter). Screenplay by Francis Goodrich et al. Directed by Frank Capra. Rating: U. Running time: 130 minutes.

I’m going to come across as a wannabe-Hitchens here, and I probably am, but in the same way he picked fights with some of the most acclaimed of public figures, from the Clintons to Mother Theresa, I cannot help but feel a duty to partially prosecute It’s A Wonderful Life. Universally adored it may be, and no doubt there’s ample justification for that. It’s enough of a life-affirming Christmas and family tear-fest that it’s almost impossible not to get drunk on the old-school style of storytelling and warming narrative. Add to that its holy status on all those top 100 lists, and freeing yourself from the shackles of convention and attempting to watch it as a non-Pavlovian weeping dog becomes a real test of will.

And yet I think I kind of managed it, and that should make for a more interesting review. I tried to remain critical, and this is what I ended up feeling. Let’s ignore the opening scene and the frequent interludes in which we flash to the sky and see three constellations of what are either stars or planets glow as god and angels chitchat. To refuse to brush aside the fantastic picture being pushed here, in which heaven is in the sky and packed with entities looking down upon us, ready to help out, would be to condemn the film too easily from the outset, however insulting it is. And fortunately, it is only towards the end that these theological overtones start to mess things up. For the most part, they are there only to provide reason for recapping George Bailey’s life, as an angel set to be sent down to earth to convince him not to commit suicide is briefed on the history of his deeds.

Here’s where the film earns its status. We see him save lives at a young age and grow to stand up for his local community against vested corporate interests, keeping a collectivist building society going and ensuring wealth remains fairy dispersed rather than increasingly unequal in its distribution. He falls in love with a sweetheart, has kids and becomes a neighbourhood favourite. And as it’s James Stewart, it is, of course, glorious in its romanticism.

But then, he loses money. He is threatened with bankruptcy, and now all that joy evaporates, he loses all sense of perspective on the quality of his life, and suddenly suicide is on the cards, minutes after he has returned to his oh so sweet family on Christmas Eve.

This leap requires about as much suspension of belief as faith in the existence of guardian angels. It is a mad jump in tone and attitude, and not even half the necessary work is done to get us on board.

It is partially exacerbated by the angel himself, who in traditional Christian fashion is not motivated by morality for the sake of rightness itself, but only for ulterior motives and the dangling carrots. For the final thirty minutes we get drilled with reminders from this moaning magic man that he has only come down to save Bailey so that he can earn his wings in heaven. ‘This is some way to earn my wings!’ ‘I got to earn my wings somehow!’ ‘I want my wings!’

Enough of that. A shame Bailey didn’t hear this before he contemplated topping himself; at least then he would have had a believable motive. As it is, this is the second necessary evil of the film, this time instrumental to the playing out of a wonderful concept that should be used so much better than this, but it still just about pulled off. The angel allows Bailey’s cry that he wishes he had never been born to materialise as a visual hypothesis and thought experiment. We get a cinematic manifestation of those crucial questions: has your life been worthwhile? What have you caused to happen? Would the world have been a better place without you?

To add a final rhetorical question: why, then, in answering all of this, would you focus on what a man did largely by chance? We briefly saw Bailey save his brother from drowning as a kid, and then it’s emphasised how if Bailey hadn’t existed, his brother would not have lived and thus would not have gone on to fight in the war and save many lives and win the Medal of Honour. Well, yes, but there wasn’t all of this foresight and intent locked up in his instinctive reaction. ‘How many lives are affected by one man’, offers the angel. Indeed, but if the connections are as coincidental and Babelesque as this, it’s hardly reassuring and suggestive of the fact that your life is of value.

Much better is the reminder of precisely what the film had focused on for the past hour: how much he did and sacrificed for the sake of his neighbours. How he had plans to travel the world, but stayed put and prevented an oppressive monopoly ruining his hometown by keeping a cooperative robust, despite many attempts by individuals to back out of it. We’re shown how, were he not to have lived, this town would now be called ‘Pottersville’ after the scrooge-like Potter himself. This is his real legacy. That is what his identity was tied up with, and we should be shown much more of the slums that he worked to prevent.

It’s a shame that they couldn’t have got these reflections right, and an even bigger one that it had to be done via the work of an ‘angel’. But when all things are considered, it’s still an undeniably powerful thing to film. And the shift in perception of the value of things – from the suicidal early evening, through the visions, to the late night reunion with his family – is remarkably well done, however tricky to believe it is. It’s like we go from wearing gloom glasses to picking out the beauty of the world again, and I guess lightning and music help with that.

The main thing I couldn’t help but focus on, though, was the way the film works as an enormously ironic precursor to Lennon’s Imagine. That song revelled in the vision of a world in which possessions and religion were no longer, and everyone loved it. Similarly, despite being made during the rise of McCarthyism, It’s A Wonderful Life grew to be an American favourite even though it celebrates the type of collectivist project that that individualist nation hates, and it demonises the Steve Jobs-style character commonly held up as a hero. That the FBI had a file open on the filmmakers is no surprise. But, this just goes to show: wrap up anything with the beaming smiles of good looking people and a large dose of sentimentalism, and even if it’s an implicit endorsement of quasi-Marxism, everyone will grow to love it.

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