A few weeks ago, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation was the subject of a "Shelf Life" column, and I was not convinced that it held up when I watched it again for the first time in probably 15 years. Suffice it to say that many readers disagreed – I'm still getting negative comments – but it made me both excited and reluctant to dive into It's a Wonderful Life, which is probably the holiday-movie genre's all-time most-beloved and venerated entry. (Personally, A Christmas Story is my favorite holiday film, but Frank Capra's black and white classic has the advantage of almost 40 years to develop a generation-spanning army of fans.)
Interestingly, I watched the film just a few years ago for the first time, and I didn't like it. For a guy who so often forewent his own plans and ambitions to help others, Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey was whiny and miserable and not always sympathetic (much less fun) to watch. Further, when Clarence the clumsy would-be angel shows him an alternate reality, I didn't quite get what he was supposed to learn by watching how the world he knew was different without him in it, especially since the bottom line seemed to be they're miserable, but he's dead, which certainly isn't any better for him either.
But acknowledging that my expectations were low going into another viewing of the film, it seemed like the time was right – not to mention the holiday itself – for a "Shelf Life" examining the merits and moviegoing value of It's a Wonderful Life.
The Facts: Released in 1946, It's a Wonderful Life was the first (and last) film that Frank Capra produced, financed, directed and co-wrote himself. At a reported cost of $3.7 million, the film earned less than its production costs during its initial theatrical run, but nevertheless ranked as both his and actor Jimmy Stewart's favorite films on the ones they made. Subsequently the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Picture, although it won none of them. More recently, American Film Institute named it the #1 Most Powerful Movie of All Time.
Part of the reason for the film's widespread viewings in the years after its theatrical run was that National Telefilm Associates, the company that purchased the rights to its television broadcast, musical score, original nitrate film elements, and the film rights to the story on which it's based, lapsed due to a clerical error in 1974. Although networks were required to pay royalties, the film effectively entered into public domain, and as a result it was broadcast more frequently on local stations. Currently NBC owns the rights to broadcast the film on television, but that lapse in the rights gave the film an opportunity to find the audience it never did theatrically, as well as earn it a place among the most-beloved holiday and family movies of all time.
What Still Works: Stewart's performance is the stuff that "tour-de-force" pull quotes were made for: the actor so effortlessly conveys the idealism, energy, bitterness, desperation, fear, and gratitude that George Bailey feels that we're sort of helpless not to succumb to sympathy, much less emotional identification, with his ongoing plight. The story of his upbringing and early days does a wonderful job showing how he formulated a sense of hope and ambition for his life, and then the film dexterously destroys his dreams with a series of events that together obviously exude melodrama, but are all surprisingly authentic and compelling as reasons why he would relinquish one goal or dream after another to help others.
Ultimately, there's a real power in the humanity of the characterizations themselves – even down to Lionel Barrymore's villainous Mr. Potter – that grounds some of the film's sillier elements (see "What Doesn't Work" below) in a sense of reality or at least believability. Plus, there's a lot of fun to be had in those early scenes – the graduation dance had me in stitches – and the movie as a whole juggles so many different kinds of storytelling so effectively that it still works today whether you want to laugh, cry, think, or do all three.
What Doesn't Work: The "angel" business is mostly ridiculous. First of all, the film opens with a "conversation" between three stars that represent angels/ spirits in the cosmos, and then introduces that part of the journey of the film is about an angel who is trying to get his wings. I understand and value the importance of religion in the character's lives as a redemptive force, but George's journey is enough to make the story compelling. Moreover, Clarence is all but forgotten until the last 20 minutes of the film, when he's called upon to provide the fantasy element that makes George look back on the impact of his life.
Meanwhile, that begs closer scrutiny of two elements in the film: George's altruism and his vision of a reality in which he does not exist. George spends almost the entire film putting his needs and wants aside in favor of helping others, but only bitterly, and is only rewarded after he is basically forced to recognize that he made a positive impact on these others' lives. I think the film could have been more successful without its religious aspect, because he doesn't need to physically see what the world would have been like; rather, he comes home to his family and is disillusioned and disappointed in what his life has become, and is greeted with mounds of letters and cards and checks and money from the people whom he helped, and that would be redemption enough.
The "alternate reality" Bedford Falls is essentially a borrowed trope from A Christmas Carol that I think kind of fails to really impress upon him what he needs to learn. The reason for this is that during the sequence, all he does is race around trying to connect with people who no longer know him, and is despondent at the end of this vision because he is dead or doesn't exist, not because he's grateful he was able to help these people. This is most evident in his exhilarating realization he's returned to reality and reconnects with his family and friends; unfortunately like lesser Christmas Carol adaptations that fail to emphasize the personal loneliness and regret of Scrooge's life alone over the more concrete and obvious fear of death, this spiritual element perhaps understandably works for those who are themselves religious, but it's a fantasy element (at least within the film) that isn't necessary for the film to pay off narratively or emotionally.
What's The Verdict: It's a Wonderful Life is a pretty great movie, and it does hold up. I suspect that if I had seen this film from an early age and watched it more often (and I intend to), I might feel more compelled to overlook what I think are some of its structural problems, as I certainly have with other holiday movies (much less non-holiday personal favorites). But I'm genuinely pleased to find myself among the ranks of folks who enjoy and appreciate Frank Capra's film for what it is – an entertaining and heartwarming fable that makes people feel good not only during the holiday season, but any time of year.