It is easy to dismiss It's a Wonderful Life, and indeed, people have been doing so since the film's release in 1946. Too sentimental, too hokey, too loaded with Frank Capra's hopeful humanism -- all these complaints, and more, have been fired at It's a Wonderful Life over the years. People still watch It's a Wonderful Life, sure, but you have to ask how much of this is based in the two most corrosive reasons to watch a film -- camp and tradition. Watching a film only so you can dissect it with the sharp blades of irony can blind you to its real virtues; you look for stereotypes, not performances; listen for often-quoted lines of dialogue without ever hearing them; see scenes in the context of their pop-culture parodies instead of as what they are.
So, the virtues of It's a Wonderful Life are often ignored by detractors. I'd also put forward that the virtues of It's a Wonderful Life are, in some way, occasionally ignored by the people who love it. It's a Wonderful Life is part of the American film canon, sure, but the canon is a cage -- placing movies on pedestals can put how good they actually are out of our minds. And hurling a film on every year because you're used to doing so can turn it into something seen but unwatched, the cinema equivalent of a nativity crèche or an artificial tree: It gets pulled out every December, put away soon after, forgotten until next year.
And I'm guilty of both sins, certainly. I noticed years ago how in the "good" version of Bedford Falls, the only person of color is the Bailey family's maid, Annie; there are a few more at the periphery of our sight as George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) reels through Pottersville, the evil and malign vision of what Bedford Falls would have become if he'd never been born. I've relished some of the parody riffs on It's a Wonderful Life. And for a few years, after college, I'd make cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate and have people over to watch the film -- turning it into background musak, coating it with tradition and shielding it from true sight.
But if you watch It's a Wonderful Life -- really watch it -- there's much more to it than mockable moviemaking styles of the past or half-seen familiar visions. It's one of the first films where you can see Jimmy Stewart becoming the great actor he was for Ford and Hitchcock and Mann -- as George Bailey breaks down, facing death, Stewart's familiar demeanor shatters into brittle, sharp shards. It's also a great demonstration of why the cliché's about Capra don't do him justice -- Capra delivered happy endings, sure, but he also showed the work it took to make them happen. And Capra had a point to make with his tale, speaking to the fear and worry on the part of hardworking Americans that capitalism was going to move forward and pay them less while earning the rich more -- a very real fear after the war, and a very real fear now.
But what It's a Wonderful Life comes down to, for me, is a very simple thing. Facts tell us things that are true; stories tell us things that we wish were true, or -- more bluntly -- that we need to believe are true. With his life ruined, facing death or disgrace, George Bailey gets to see what the world would be like if he'd never been born. And he sees people he knows lost, broken, lonely or dead; he witnesses a nightmare vision of his hometown; he sees every thing he's ever known corrupted and ruined. And when he returns to life, knowing that his life " ... has touched so many others," knowing that " ... no man is a failure who has friends ..."? He's ecstatic, delighted, exuberant; he knows that no matter how bad things are, he's alive to try and make them better, alive to see the people he loves. Even before friends and family come to bring him the money he needs to avoid ruin and jail -- no questions asked, as much as they can give, because they know him and love him -- he knows, and we know, that life is better than death, that our being alive means something, has meant something.
And we ourselves don't merely hope that this is true; we need it to be true -- for George, and for us. It's easy to dismiss It's a Wonderful Life -- but then again, it's easy to be cynical, to be bitter, to give up hope. It's a Wonderful Life stands against that kind of pessimism -- and also knows just how hard it is to be optimistic in a world that too often seems cruel and capricious and cold. I still watch Capra's movie during the holidays -- noting its flaws, sure, but also appreciating all the things it does perfectly. It's more than a movie; it's a gift the past gives to the present, and a welcome gift, at that. Even if it's just for the 130 minutes of its runtime, even if it's just that one time a year, believing in It's a Wonderful Life makes it easier, makes it possible, to believe that it's a wonderful life.