Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Classic Films in Focus: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
These things, as ubiquitous as they are, do not go to the heart of It's a Wonderful Life; they show us only the the last glimpse of a story that has endured not because of its few bright moments, but because of its deeper understanding of the dark side of Christmas and of life, as well. It's a Wonderful Life is a Christmas story for the losers, the nice guys who finish last, the Bob Cratchits drowning in a world of Scrooges. It's a holiday film for those who find themselves miserably and helplessly depressed, not in spite of the season, but because of it. For these reasons it remains ones of the best and most truthful of seasonal films, and people who only ever catch the ending have missed everything that matters about it.
The memorabilia enshrines only the final scene of the film, that of a happy George and his family beneath the Christmas tree, but the darker scenes work themselves more subtly into the viewer's memory. George, having never been born, meets the woman who would have been his mother, and of course she does not know him. Lovely Mary, a lonely spinster, runs from him in fear. The grief stricken pharmacist whom George saved from a fatal mistake now wanders the town a broken drunk, mocked and reviled. Loathsome Potter, like a fat spider, looms over this town full of flies, and in George's absence the whole scene sinks and gasps and gives itself up to despair. Without George, the town becomes like him at the beginning of the film. His suffering is replaced by that of everyone else in Bedford Falls.
Most of us have days when the view from the bridge looks tempting, and it's because of that shared misery that George speaks to us. If you have been a winner all your life and are happy at Christmas then you don't need to watch It's a Wonderful Life; it's not for you. It's for those of us who doubt, who grieve, who harbor sadness in our hearts as the carols are sung. It's for those of us who need to be reminded not so much that it's a wonderful life, but that we aren't alone in sometimes feeling that it's not.
If Capra's holiday classic is your only experience with the director, be sure to see Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). George Bailey was Jimmy Stewart's first post-war role; see him in Destry Rides Again (1939) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) for more pre-war work, and then compare those with other post-war films like Rope (1948), Winchester '73 (1950), and Vertigo (1958). For more Christmas classics, try Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and White Christmas (1954).
An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.