It’s a Wonderful Life is seen by many as the definitive Christmas film. With a man shown, by an angel, what life would be like for his town had he never existed, the bulk of film’s second half takes place on a snowy Christmas Eve. The story focuses on the subtle pleasures to be found in small-town living, and the beauty of a life led in the service of doing the best you can for your fellow human. Also, that title – It’s a Wonderful Life – would prompt anyone to believe they were about to view the ultimate feel-good tale.
Director Frank Capra had made his name with a series of films highlighting the inherent power of goodness, such as 1934’s superb It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable, and 1939’s Mr Smith goes to Washington, also with James Stewart (the latter being the film Mel Gibson is remaking in his episode of The Simpsons). Capra’s work tended to focus on finding the best in people, and it valued tales of selflessness and hard work. The term ‘Capra-corn’ was coined by detractors as a jab at what they perceived to be the cheesiness inherent in his work. It is always a shock to the first-time viewer that It’s a Wonderful Life makes them earn the feel-good ending, by taking them first though a surprisingly dark tale.
The majority of the running time of It’s a Wonderful Life is concerned with showing us the life of Bedford Falls’ resident George Bailey, from the age of around twelve through to his late thirties. As the film starts, residents of the town are heard praying for George, for reasons as-yet-unknown. The answer to his prayers will be angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers, in a very sweet-natured performance) – but first Clarence needs to familiarise himself with how George ended up where his is (again, those details will be revealed later in the film).
George (portrayed, in his own personal favourite of his performances, by the terrific Jimmy Stewart) is, from his very earliest appearance, a kind boy-then-man, who longs to make his mark on the World. He has a subscription to the National Geographic, and dreams of going to college, then going on to build new modern cities. He comes from a family of limited means, with his father the co-owner of the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Company. This is family for who their life’s work is to give people a chance to own their own homes, without having to do business with owner of the bank Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore). We are then taken through the next near-30 years of his life, as his ambitions are repeatedly dashed: first by his father dying, and the Board of the Building and Loan insisting George stay in town to run the company; then by his brother Harry marrying into a family that can offer him career opportunities away from the company he had promised to take off George’s hands. George ends up a popular yet frustrated father of four, living on modest means whilst married to Mary (Donna Reed). In this time he has, continually, to fight off Mr Potter’s attempt to kill off the Building and Loan, as this provides his only competition in the town.
Based on the short story, The Greatest Gift, by Philip Van Doren Stern, the great joy of It’s a Wonderful Life is in its ability to develop its story in a compelling way without ever giving away that almost all of what we are being presented with is key. We see George, as a boy, prevent his boss at the drugstore, Mr Gower, from accidentally, and in grief over the death of his son from influenza, sending out medicines containing poison; earlier we see him save his eight-year-old brother from dying after falling through the ice during a winter play session. All of this is vital both to the destination of the story, and to the very themes Capra is presenting: most of our influence on others, and the World around us, is simply not something we ever recognise as important in the moment; it is merely a by-product of a life lived according to our individual moral codes.
The film’s third act is concerned with George reaching the brink of suicide over a misplaced $8,000. This was a source of controversy at the time, as censors were unhappy that Mr Potter who had (albeit originally somewhat accidentally) stolen that money, faced no consequences for his crime. This misses the point of the film entirely, but we’ll return to that. In answer to his prayers for help, he is sent the aforementioned Clarence. The concept of the film – a man sees what the world would be like had he never been born – is actually a relatively small portion of the film – perhaps 20 minutes at most, but it pays off everything we have seen to this point. A man with little money, a raft of unfulfilled dreams, and stuck in a small town, turns out to have been vital to the wellbeing of so many around him. Without him, Mr Gower would have served time in prison for murder, brother Harry (Todd Karns) would have died at eight years old, and a ship full of people would have been killed in World War II, as Harry would not have been there to save them. Most strikingly, without George, the town is transformed: all of the clean, well presented homes funded by the Bailey Company are not there – in their place a mixture of cemetery land, and Mr Potter’s uninhabitable slums.
On a personal level, residents find themselves in very different circumstances: Ernie (Frank Faylen), a taxi driver and happily married man in George’s reality, is an embittered divorcé – the films hints strongly that this domestic discomfort is due to not being able to access the housing that George would have been there to provide. On a side note, Ernie’s cop friend is named Bert (Ward Bond) – latterly an influence on the Sesame Street characters. Without George, Bedford Falls is dominated by Mr Potter, becoming the garish Pottersville, a hard-drinking, good time town, complete with houses of ill-repute. Pottersville is a clear influence on Back to the Future 2‘s alternate 1985 – where a similarly out of control dominant businessman/villain has reshaped a town in his image.
The censors spectacularly missed the point when they noted the lack of comeuppance for Mr Potter. It’s a Wonderful Life is a lasting testament to the power of living in kindness. In George’s restored reality, the townsfolk – many of limited means themselves – flock to George’s house to replace the missing $8,000. Key, here, is the fact that not one of them asks where the original money went – George has spent the three decades that we see earning the trust of everyone he meets. Mr Potter keeps the $8,000, but he is beaten. Having seen a reality where he was the dominant figure in a town bearing his name, the restoration of George – and his kindness – has returned us to a town in which Potter is a peripheral (if wealthy), isolated figure, in failing health. That is his punishment.
It’s a Wonderful Life was a flop upon release, and came into public consciousness in the 1970s, simply because someone forgot to renew its copyright. For a few years broadcasters found they could screen the film for free. Appropriately for a film with these themes, a small action (or lack of action) by a junior, seemingly unimportant studio administrator led to such differences in our timeline. It’s a Wonderful Life remains a gift to us all, and one without which no Christmas is truly complete.