It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Directed by Frank Capra

Poster for It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Corney, sentimental, manipulative … It’s a Wonderful Life is all these things, as most Capra films are, and yet it works beautifully, largely because of those qualities.

When talking about this movie, the easiest thing to do is to discuss all the things that are wrong with it. There are so many of them, at least from the perspective of late 2003 and with a contemporary sensibility of how a film should work. The difficult job is to discuss what is right about It’s a Wonderful Life. At least, to say what’s right with it beyond saying, “It makes me feel good.”

A Fable

I think part of the reason the movie works is that most of us carry with us (at least once we’ve become a little older) an unarticulated sense that somewhere, sometime there existed “a golden age.” We have an almost innate sense that there was a better time somewhere in the past. The feeling makes no appeal to reason. The world is likely neither better nor worse than it ever was, but still we have an unreasonable sense such a time did exist.

Donna Reed, James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946); Directed by Frank Capra

For a contemporary audience, then, a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life appeals to this. It has an aged look (it’s black and white). The story occurs in the first half of the 20th century. It’s sentimental manipulations are forgiven because … well it’s an older film. They weren’t as cynical or even as sophisticated as we are now (we feel).

This sense is the same one we bring to most fables, those “Once upon a time …” stories.

And this is what It’s a Wonderful Life is: a fable. It’s a folk tale on film. As such, it is simple (unlike what we would expect from a modern story like, say, Insomnia.)

Whatever else can be said about Frank Capra movies, their principle quality is simplicity and this is why they work.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra presents us a Norman Rockwell town, the awe-shucks town of Bedford Falls. His main character is George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), the awe-shucks favorite son of the town.

Throughout the film, we get basic, uncompromised images and characters who represent one thing and only one thing. There is no ambiguity. There is no subtext.

For George (Jimmy Stewart), life suddenly take a left turn.

George’s Sight

The theme of the film is sight – or the lack of it as George, in his troubles, can’t see the forest for the trees.

He becomes so focused on his money troubles he can’t see a way out even though it is there all around him, through his family and friends and the relationships he has developed over the years. He can’t “see” that the answer to his problems is right there in front of him.

It’s only after the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) shows him how the world would be if he had never been born that his eyes finally open (figuratively speaking). It is very similar to Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” in this respect.

The movie itself sort of disappeared after it came out (not a popular failure but not a big success either).

Only after it went into the public domain and began to be shown on TV stations (at no cost) did people discover it.

It became the huge success it has become only after this, once we began to “see” it for what it was.

It’s also interesting to note how what we remember of the film is really just the final third. Clarence, the angel, doesn’t appear until then.

In the first two thirds, Capra lays the groundwork for George’s dilemma and the angel’s appearance. It’s largely exposition and probably goes on too long.

4 stars out of 4.

But surprisingly, it all works out in the end!

(Originally posted 2003.)

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