As I am writing this it is early in the Christmas season of 2014 so what better time to look back at Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life? Whenever a Christmas movie becomes mildly successful you can be sure it will be playing a few times on TV in December, so considering Capra’s movie came out in 1946 and has been airing over the airways ever since on a yearly basis it can easily claim to be the king of Christmas movies. That being said I still prefer Die Hard. Yes, that is a Christmas movie.
Given how many of the movies on Empire magazine’s greatest movies list came out decades before I was born, I have seen many of them either on DVD or while they were playing on TV one night. With It’s a Wonderful Life seeing it on TV was just a matter of sitting down on the couch during the holiday season three years ago and wait because eventually it was going to play on a channel somewhere. At this point this movie is like winter: it keeps coming back. Of course since it came out right after the end of World War II I found its sentimentality a bit dated, but Capra was clearly onto something since the third act has been countlessly referenced and homaged in popular culture over the years.
Although it is known as a Christmas movie, the story begins with flashbacks to the youth of protagonist George Bailey (James Stewart). George has done many good things in his life, from saving his brother from drowning as a child, to using the funds from his honeymoon to prevent a loan association from collapsing. He marries Mary (Donna Reed) the love of his life, raises four children, and runs an affordable housing project in his home of Bedford Falls, New York.
So if George has such a wonderful life, why is he standing on a bridge on Christmas Eve contemplating suicide? Greed got him there, not his own, but that of slumlord Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who steals the loan George must deposit in Potter’s bank in order to keep the Bailey loan association from bankruptcy. If George doesn’t find the money soon he could go to the jail and the association will go down in a scandal. When George comes to Potter asking for money Potter convinces him he is worth more dead than alive thanks to his life insurance, hence the desperate walk to the bridge over the icy water.
Naturally the old miser doesn’t get to win, thanks to efforts of nothing less than an angel from heaven. Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) is George’s guardian angel, although George notices he has not earned his wings yet. Feeling drunk and cynical, George walks away from the bridge and wishes he had never been born. Clarence obliges him and shows him what Bedford Falls would have looked like if George Bailey had never existed. Given all the good George has done in his life, it basically would have looked like a poor New York neighbourhood from the 1970s, filled with pawn shops, sleazy nightclubs, and with all the greedy people in charge.
If you are a cynical person and don’t believe in angel, you would probably scoff at this part, but what the heck, it’s Christmas. Who wouldn’t want George to decide to live, be with his family, and appreciate the wonderful life he’s had? Unless of course you are a rich miser like old man Potter. Am I the only who thinks Donald Trump watches this movie every year and roots for Potter?
Regardless of your belief in guardian angels, the concept of seeing what the world would be like without you is a very clever device and you can only wish your lack of existence would make as much difference as George Bailey. For a good laugh, watch the sketch where Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry imagine what the world would have been like if Rupert Murdoch had never been born.