Frank Capra’s parable about goodness versus the tyranny of profit bombed on its original release, but then gradually gained classic status with later audiences.
Among the handful of older films that are generally considered classic Christmas movies, It’s a Wonderful Life is quite different. Yes, the last fourth or so of the movie takes place during Christmas, and there’s a Christmas tree and some Christmas music, but other than that, the holiday is not an explicit theme of the picture. Frank Capra’s 1946 film, expanded from a magazine short story with help from the great screenwriting duo Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is actually an attempt to explore one of the most difficult themes in literature: that of the genuinely good man.
What is true goodness, and how does it fare in the world? The good man in It’s a Wonderful Life is George Bailey, who runs a building and loan company in a small town called Bedford Falls. Capra picked the perfect actor to play this character, James Stewart, who I think played good men more convincingly than anyone else ever has.
As the film begins, we find ourselves in the realm of myth. We see blinking stars and hear heavenly voice-overs. There’s a man, George Bailey—he needs help right away, and a guardian angel named Clarence is assigned to the job. He is shown George’s life in flashback, which is how we the audience see the story. From the first scene, where George rescues his brother from falling through the ice, while losing the hearing in one ear as a consequence, we see how George—who has normal human aspirations—ends up selflessly sacrificing his own chances and opportunities to help others. For him, it means staying in Bedford Falls instead of going to college or traveling. He marries his childhood sweetheart, played by Donna Reed, and has four kids. But the selfish actions of the town’s wealthiest man, the bank president, Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore, continues to create hardship for George and the town, which leads to ruin and despair. And here we get back to the mythical element: when George says it would have been better not to be born, Clarence decides to show him what the town would be like without him.
I used to make fun of this movie because of its sentimentality, and also, well, because of angels and the supernatural. But what I see now is a splendidly crafted parable about what really counts in life. Capra saw that America was in the process of changing in fundamental ways after World War II. The film idealizes pre-war America as a world of small town decency, community, and family. But what we see on the horizon is the profit motive as the dominant social principle. In the alternate life without George, Bedford Falls has become Pottersville, named after the film’s villain, Mr. Potter. It is a soulless, lonely place where people live in anguish and fear. The film has great nostalgia for the past, and anxiety for the future: Capra saw the postwar future as loud, crass, and heartless. George Bailey’s despair corresponds to a dark place in the American soul. Emotionally, it’s remarkable how dark, that is to say how honest, the film is about ordinary life. Well, audiences at the time didn’t want to look back—after a long and bitter war, they just wanted to be entertained, and It’s a Wonderful Life bombed at the box office. Its failure ended Capra’s independent movie company Liberty Films. Only years later did people start considering it a classic.
Maybe the Christmas connection is more significant than I thought. Which is a better life, that of selfless service and love, or of wealth and profit above all else? Just like Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, Frank Capra’s answer was love, first and last and forever, and the one way to realize that It’s a Wonderful Life.