There’s an episode of “Friends” where Phoebe learns that many of her favourite films from childhood have scenes she wasn’t aware of because her mother always stopped them at a certain point, notably “Old Yeller”. I’m pretty sure “It’s A Wonderful Life” would also have made the list. The question is, at what point would Phoebe’s mother have switched off the television?
Initially a box office disappointment (although it did garner five Oscar nominations, and won a Golden Globe), it found renewed life in winter television reruns in late 1970’s America, cementing its connection to the holiday season. Coming to “It’s A Wonderful Life” now that it’s become a celebrated Christmas institution and definitive slice of Americana is problematic now, as there’s such a burden of expectation on it to deliver on the hype.
Indeed, the first time I watched it (only a couple of years ago), I was underwhelmed and bored by it. But subsequent re-watchings have vastly improved my opinion of the film. The first thing is that despite its festive trappings and reputation, the first ninety minutes of the film are pure soap opera. The tale of the greedy, covetous Henry F Potter () and the noble, good hearted George Bailey is a melodramatic battle for control of the small town of Bedford Falls over the course of many years. Potter and Bailey are archetypal ancestors of the feuding Ewing Brothers JR and Bobby. The ultimate tale of ‘life is what happens while you’re making other plans’, George gradually lets go of his dreams of upping sticks and exploring the world as every time he’s on the cusp of leaving, some crisis keeps him in town, often as the last good man willing to stand up to Henry Potter’s nefarious schemes to crush the small Bedford Falls Savings & Loan and tighten his grip on the lives of the townsfolk. It’s ironic that the film’s central themes of corporate greed, and financial chicanery and runs on banks crippling communities has more resonance now than at any time since the movie’s release. But, of course George is as honest as the day is long and eventually, it’s an act of bumbling forgetfulness by Uncle Billy which brings about George’s downfall. Only then does the film step up a gear, revealing itself as a tale of reflection, epiphany and salvation.
In many ways, the story owes its core to Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ but inverts the story so that instead of a wicked man learning the error of a life of selfishness and greed we are presented with the story of a good an honourable man learning that through a life of selflessness and generosity, he has made the lives of those around him immeasurably better. Second only to Dickens’ story in terms of the number of times it’s been borrowed or reimagined for countless movies and TV stories, the idea of an alternative reality where a principle character never existed is a familiar trope in TV programmes from “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” to “Dallas” itself, which famously ended its original run with a two hour homage to “It’s A Wonderful Life” as the devil showed JR what the Ewing family would have been like if JR had never existed. This film also gives legitimacy to the popular UK soap opera convention that Christmas is a time to pile misery upon misery on their characters. That this is usually done without respite or redemption makes me think the producer’s parents must have had a similar, if more twisted, approach to showing films to their children as Phoebe Buffay’s, switching off at the point where George decides to commit suicide.
James Stewart’s said of all the films he made, this was his favourite and he gives a terrific performance here as perennial good soul George Bailey and he anchors the whole film as it moves through the years of George’s life. Lionel Barrymore is also great in his occasional appearances as the villainous money lender, Scrooge in all but name, who seeks to control the town, while Donna Reed and Thomas Mitchell provide support as George’s wife and bumbling uncle respectively. Henry Travers as would-be angel Clarence Oddbody is charmingly eccentric and thoroughly delivers on his small but pivotal role. Overall the performances are, to be honest, a little bit hammy – partly due to the era in which the picture was made – but really, we all enjoy a bit of Christmas ham, don’t we? For all the slow, patiently crafted build up to the fall and karmic deliverance of George Bailey, the ending does feel a bit rushed and abrupt.
A misunderstood and undervalued masterpiece when it was released, this is a prime cut of an America which may never have really existed but we all wish had done (and still did) and if nothing else is a movie which continues to exert an enormous influence on modern storytelling in TV and movies, and not just at Christmas.