It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – I don’t need to tell you that times are hard. We’re slowly crawling our way out of a severe economic hardship and the people who could help seem more devoted to a culture war. Still I feel that for everything wrong in the world most people are just trying to do what is right, though we all have wildly different ideas of what exactly that entails. It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie that finds its way onto television every year. It’s not hard to see why. While the Christmas connection pretty much only applies to the film’s famous ending, it’s a life-affirming story about how many people one man’s life can touch. (Also it fell into the public domain for a time in the 70s… which is incidentally when it became a holiday classic.) Cleverer folk than I have written about the moral message of the film. Anyway, if I can help it I watch this movie every year. It feels weird writing a summary paragraph for a movie that practically everyone has seen, but here goes…

Everyone in the town of Bedford Falls is praying for a man named George Bailey (James Stewart). Angels (personified by astronomical figures for some reason) meet to discuss what is to be done. George’ guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) is given the summary of George’s life. George has always been a selfless person, going all the way back to childhood when he saved his brother Harry from drowning and prevented his grief-stricken employer Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) from accidentally poisoning a child. As he grows into an adult, George dreams of getting out of Bedford Falls but works for his father (Samuel S. Hinds) at the Bailey Savings and Loan to save up enough money for college. When his father has a stroke, he lets Harry (Todd Karns) go instead. Staying behind in Bedford Falls he falls in love with and eventually marries Mary (Donna Reed), all the while using the Savings and Loan to help people and keep the town from falling entirely into the clutches of the heartless and greedy businessman Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Of course, in a life full of selflessness and compromise George finds himself in pretty dire straits, to the point where some of the most famous divine intervention in film history is needed to help him…

It’s a Wonderful Life is not just one of my favorite Christmas movies, it is flat-out one of my favorite movies. I cannot watch it without tearing up at the ending. Frank Capra understood something about feel-good movies. He knew you had to put the main character through hell in order to make the happy ending mean something (see also Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). Capra’s movies were often considered so sentimental and corny that “Capra-corn” was a term invented just to describe them. It doesn’t matter if it’s corny (the idea that Mary would never have found anyone if not for George is kind of laughable, especially being played by Donna Reed), it’s great film-making. It’s a movie that makes you feel like party of this great big wonderful and occasional beautiful mess called humanity. There are horrible things on the news right now. It’s easy to get dejected. It’s easy to be cynical. Movies like this remind us why it’s better not to be. We’re all in this together. It’s a wonderful life, after all.


You know a lot of people call me a cynic. Probably because I curse a lot and get upset fairly easily. But the truth is inside I got a big old sentimental heart. I believe that the better parts of human nature can prevail and that is why I love the hell out of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Much like the other Frank Capra movies I’ve seen, the film takes a good character and puts him through hell until at the last minute he’s saved. Jimmy Stewart is great in the lead and Lionel Barrymore is the type of overblown supervillain THAT TOTALLY EXISTS IN REAL LIFE (in fact they seem to run the world). In fact I think the main thing I like about this movie is the idea that people looking out for each other can stand up to the Mr. Potters of the world. Plus there’s the whole “don’t kill yourself because you mean a lot to a lot of people” message. That’s good too. Maybe everyone hasn’t single-handedly protected a small town from the evil machinations of an avaricious sociopath, but people are interconnected in mind-blowing ways so you never really know the impact you have. It is worth noting that in the end [uh, SPOILER ALERT if you’ve somehow avoided this movie] Mr. Potter totally gets to keep the “misplaced” $8000. That might get on some people’s nerves but the way I figure, another $8000 won’t really make any substantive difference to a millionaire. As the film very explicitly spells out, George Baily is rich in ways that Potter never will be. The old bastard probably dies alone, while George has friend who will bail him out of an admittedly suspicious financial crisis. [END SPOILERS I guess… seriously has anyone not seen this movie?] So with my wild sentimentality on display, I whole-heartedly proclaim my love of this movie. Sidenote: I watched this on DVD because I can’t stand how many commercials they jam into it on NBC every year…

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