It’s a Wonderful Life (1933) – Director: Frank Capra Original Screenplay: Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore OSCAR COUNT (0) – 5 nominations including Best Picture
It’s a Wonderful Life has become a quintessential piece of American art. Like Washington Crosses the Delaware, it is widely recognized, but seems to be examined less as time goes on. It’s a classic, the mindset seems to go – any further mindset is beyond the point.
But people do forget that the film took decades to find its audience. When it came out, immediately after the end of World War II, people did not embrace the pessimism of small town American life. People wanted optimism – It’s A Wonderful Life, with discussions of suicide and trauma, is rather downbeat.
But the film also contains hope in what was a very downbeat time. It is not as though, immediately following World War II, that the U.S. became a sort of utopia. There were still many residual effects, not only from the War, but also from the Great Depression. There were (and still are) plenty of Mr. Potters and George Baileys in existence today, even though each is always trying to claim to be the other. It’s also amazing how we pretty much are living in the world that had been previously outlined in this film – where individual existence is not seen as important on the surface and where people are re-evaluating their own priorities based on their loss of money.
Maybe that is why the film has survived – its message is timeless. It is at our most desperate when we realize how much we may matter. It’s A Wonderful Lifedemonstrates that. It is not the excellent script that is my favorite element of the film. Rather, it is the wonderful supporting characters that make the film work. Each one appears like an actual person – one with a history. Take Uncle Billy, for example. Lesser films would merely portray him as a one note buffoon.It’s A Wonderful Life shows why Uncle Billy works for George, their history together, the moments they’ve shared…it makes the tragedy of his loss (and his shortcomings) that much more pronounced. Even ancillary characters like Bert and Ernie feel neighbors in any American suburb. When they all come together at the end to thank George, it is not
I have always found it funny that many interpret the film as a sort of anti-capitalist/pro-humanist sort of work (see the “did you know” fact). Yes, Mr. Potter is undeniably malicious and George caring about his friends over the money he could be making. But both men are involved in the same business and do the same tasks. George is not trying to tear down Mr. Potter – he is trying to build himself up. And while the film certainly depends on the triumph of the human spirit, well…it opens with most of the major characters reciting prayers. The religious elements in the film would never work if the film were made today. The film would either be too preachy or too nervous to openly discuss an afterlife. It’s a Wonderful Life finds the right balance in both themes. Yes, some capitalists are terrible – but it is not a widespread phenomenon. Yes, the human spirit will be triumphant – but a belief in a higher being is not necessarily a complete hindrance to that triumph. I suppose that appeal is just another reason that the film works – it speaks to people of different philosophical beliefs.
So, why is it one of the greatest films of all time? Sure, it is among the most copied films, to the point that every single sitcom has an episode that follows this plot. But the real reason is that the film perfectly defines the time and place that it was made. This film and The Best Years of Our Lives (released the same year) capture the post war zeitgeist. But It’s a Wonderful Life speaks to every American. Frank Capra is one of those who understood a fundamental part of the national attitude that has always been present. Ultimately, the American dream may not be dependent upon how much money one makes but the legacy that is left behind.
The entire sequence remains a favorite of mine (only a portion of it is shown in the above video), in which future husband and wife leave from a dance. Now, it is certainly not as fantastical as the third act, nor is it as poignant. I think the reason enjoy it is because that one scene perfectly capture the essence of George and Mary Bailey. George is forever the big dreamer. He believes that this is the key to happiness, even though it never provides him with anything. I think that he wants to impress Mary so badly that he fails to see that he has already accomplished this task. The same holds true for his entire life. So small are George’s actions that he fails to see the big consequences. And that, of course, is what the film is all about. George is finally happy when he realizes just how important he really is.
Did You Know: This was one of the few, if not the only, Hollywood film originally allowed in the Soviet Union.