A lot of people hate Frank Capra’s most famous film, It’s a Wonderful Life. They find it cloying, manipulative, and unbearably sentimental. After all, it finishes with what’s probably the happiest happy ending in the history of Hollywood happy endings.
But I disagree. Yes, that ending lays on the Christmas cheer and milk of human kindness very thick. But in context with the rest of the movie, it’s the only ending that could work. For two hours, we’ve come to know a quaint, lovely, all-American small town that is only quaint, lovely, and all-American because one man gave up every one of his dreams and ambitions to protect his neighbors. And we know, as we watch that final moment of supreme happiness, that the primary threats to man and town have not gone away.
For a film to make my A+ list, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must have known and loved the film for years–preferably decades.
George Bailey (James Stewart in one of his best performances) is a small-town boy who dreams of a bigger world. He wants to travel, shake the dust of his home town off his feet, go to college, and be someone. But the town of Bedford Falls is controlled by the wealthy and cruel Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore in the perfect personification of an evil banker). Only a small and barely surviving building and loan, founded by George’s father, gives the townspeople an alternative. As his life progresses, George gives up one dream after another as he struggles to keep the small business from going under and taking the town with it.
Capra and his various writing collaborators gave the movie an unusual structure. George’s life is covered in an extended flashback–about half of the film’s running time–as one angel briefs another on George, who will soon attempt suicide. The flashback covers some 17 years of George’s life, from enthusiastic childhood to bitter disillusionment. The flashback takes time to be joyful, troubled, romantic, funny, and tragic. And it all works together.
Capra wisely keeps all the angel stuff light. We never actually see heaven, although we get the impression that it’s organized like the army–with First and Second Class Angels. That would have been timely humor in 1946.
In the second half, George’s uncle and partner (Thomas Mitchell) loses $8,000 of the building and loan’s money. Of course George will take the blame himself, and will need a miracle to avoid prison. One miracle comes in the form of Clarence (Henry Travers), the above-mentioned Angel Second Class, who shows George the hellhole that Bedford Falls (now named Potterville) would become if he had never been born.
Clarence’s magic saves George’s life and immortal soul, but it doesn’t solve his monetary problems. It will take a more earthly miracle–the love of his family, friends, and neighbors–to replace the missing $8,000.
Of course George is still poor and still stuck in Bedford Falls, where Mr. Potter still runs everything. But at least now George knows that people appreciate his sacrifices.
Capra shows himself a master of visual storytelling in this very talky film. Consider the early scene where the ten-year-old George works in a pharmacy. The sequence tells us, completely visually, that his pharmacist boss is drunk and in shock over the death of his son, and has accidentally and potentially fatally mixed up prescriptions.
Steward is brilliant as George, especially in the family scene where he verbally strikes out at his wife and kids. We understand why he’s in that emotional state, but they don’t. When he grabs the phone and starts screaming at his daughter’s teacher, who most certainly does not deserve such abuse, we understand and sympathize with his uncontrollable desperation while we’re horrified at his behavior.
The famous never-been-born sequence is a nightmare of film noir (not a term we associate with Capra). George races from one part of town to another, trying to find someone who recognizes him and discovering a dirty, evil, dangerous world.
One confession: Every time I see this movie, the ending brings me to tears. Frank Capra tells us that altruism comes at a very high cost. But in that ending, he shows the rewards as well.
Note, 12/16/21: I have altered this article since I first wrote it.