When Frank Capra’s Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, was released in 1946, the film was surprisingly not a box office success. World War II hadn’t been over for very long, and people were just not in the mood for such a lighthearted movie. The movie did, however, receive several Academy Awards. As television became more popular, channels played the movie during Christmas time. After a while, It’s a Wonderful Life became a classic because so many people watched the film. There are a lot of lessons to be learned in this film, but one very important lesson is that timing is everything. It would have been very easy for Capra to feel discouraged that his film wasn’t popular when it was first released. Years went by before viewers could really appreciate the brilliance of Capra’s work. The arts are an interesting field because success (as we know it) is often affected by time and perception. George Bailey, the main character in the movie, in some ways also learns this lesson as he struggles to see his self-worth when his family endures some rough times.
The movie stars Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Stewart portrays George Bailey, the sweetest man anyone could ever meet. He is the type of fellow who gives “the shirt off his back.” Most often he suffers in some way after helping people. For example, George loses his hearing in one ear after saving his brother from drowning in the lake in the middle of winter. Later, when George’s father dies unexpectedly from a stroke, he gives up his education to take over the family loan business. Over and over again, George always makes choices for the good of everyone, even at the expense of his own happiness. And yet, George never complains. His kindness is genuine and his actions are never driven by an ulterior motive. As the years go by, he marries his childhood sweetheart, Mary Hatch (Reed). One of the most beautiful scenes in the movie is when George proposes to Mary. Nowadays this scene would probably have more sexual overtones, but back then movies were much more conservative with regard to sexuality. Stewart and Reed successfully use subtlety to convey the passion between their characters.
After George and Mary get married, they try to create a comfortable life for themselves and their growing brood of adorable children, but life doesn’t go easily for them. Everyone loves George, except Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who is the wealthiest man in town and George’s business competitor. Potter spares no expense in making George’s life miserable. George faces obstacles with unwavering optimism, but, as the years go by and his family suffers poverty, his resolve begins to crack. The final straw is when George’s Uncle Billy (performed by Thomas Mitchell) misplaces $8,000. Back then this would be comparable to $110,000 now. The money was supposed to be deposited in the business bank account. George retraces Billy’s steps, but he never finds the money. He knows that without that money, his business will collapse and he will most likely go to jail. At this point, George finally breaks, and audiences see a very different side of George.
As with Capra’s other films, It’s a Wonderful Life has a surreal element in the story. George meets his guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers). George tells Clarence that the world would be better without him. Clarence teaches George a lesson by granting George his request. Here the movie goes in a very different direction as we get to see what life would be like if George had never been born. George’s absence is like setting off dominoes. For example, his little brother never makes it to adulthood because George wasn’t there to save him when he fell into the lake. The only weakness in this movie is the scene when George bumps into Mary, who appears as an anxious and disheveled librarian and, apparently an “old maid.” Surely if this film were made today that part of the movie would probably be a little different. The ideals of domesticity played such a large role in films and society after World War II, which is why an unmarried version of Mary was portrayed in such a way. However, the rest of this sequence is profound because George and the audience see how much of a difference one person makes in his or her life.
George learns a valuable lesson and, of course, the movie concludes with a happy ending. This is a Christmas story after all. Frank Capra was an imaginative and innovative director and there is always something that audiences gain from his films. The movie, which is based on American author Philip Van Doren Stern’s The Greatest Gift, has a solid storyline and brilliant cast. James Stewart and Donna Reed have chemistry on screen. Gloria Graham, who won Best Supporting Actress in The Bad And The Beautiful, also appears in this film as Violet Bick, a woman who would have faced ruin had it not been for George Bailey. Lionel Barrymore, always a strong actor, plays a convincing curmudgeon. Russian composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, wrote the score for the movie. This was not his first Capra film either. He also wrote the score for Lost Horizon.
Unlike most of the films that I review, It’s a Wonderful Life is far more familiar to American audiences thanks to television. Of all the films he directed, Capra said that this movie was his favorite. Indeed, this Christmas classic is a masterpiece that will most likely continue to entertain and inspire audiences for generations to come.