The holiday season is filled with food, family, presents, and, of course, movies. Most of the movies people routinely watch during the holiday season include such classics as Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Santa Clause, and even Elf. These Christmas movies are exactly that: novelty movies made just for the 25 days leading up to the holiday. Hardly any of these movies hold any weight as great films outside of the holiday season. However, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life does what these other movies could not by transcending the Christmas movie genre and becoming a classic film in its own right.
The 1946 movie, which is based on the 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift”, tells the story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) which takes place in the form of flashbacks at the beginning of the film so that his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) can understand the man he has been called on to help. It is clear from the beginning that the only thing that outweighs George’s lofty ambitions is his true care for everyone around him. At a young age, he saves his younger brother Harry from drowning and keeps his boss, pharmacist Mr. Gower — who is distraught after receiving news that his son had died in World War I — from accidentally delivering poison pills.
As he grows older, he must give up his plans to travel the world and attend college after his father suffers a sudden and fatal stroke. From that point forward, George follows in his father’s footsteps running the Bailey Building and Loan while building a family with his wife Mary (Donna Reed). Everything is going well until Uncle Billy, in his ineptitude, accidentally gives the “richest and meanest man in town” Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, great-uncle of Drew) the $8,000 he was supposed to deposit. The ensuing scandal leads George to wish he was never born and his guardian angel Clarence obliges him on that wish. Only then can George see that he truly had a wonderful life and what a mistake it would be to throw it away.
The true power of this movie is in the central message, which is obviously never to trust a moron like Uncle Billy with anything, least of all $8,000. Seriously, without Uncle Billy’s complete incompetency everyone would be so much better off. Maybe George should have wished that Uncle Billy was never born instead. Just a thought. Then again, George does end up WAY richer as a result of Uncle Billy losing the money. I mean, did Sam Wainwright really need to wire $25,000? Did anyone tell him that George only needed $8,000, and isn’t he mad that George stole his girlfriend and married her?
Anyways, I digress. The true meaning of the movie is that life is a gift and although it is often hard to see, every person has a great impact on all of those around them. In George’s case the effect his life has on all those around him is massive. He saves his brother’s life, he saves Mr. Gower from going to jail, he saves countless families from having to crawl to Potter for money, and his general good nature endeared him to almost everyone. As Clarence writes to George, “no man is a failure who has friends”.
However, It’s a Wonderful Life does more than just beat you to death with messages, and that’s what makes it such a classic. There is the love story between George and Mary which produces such classic moments as when a young Mary whispers in George’s bad ear “George Bailey, I’ll love you ‘til the day I die”. Or George telling Mary that he’ll throw a lasso around the moon and pull it down for her if that’s her wish. But Mary’s wish when she throws the rock at the old house is much simpler, as she reveals later — marrying George and having a family was all she ever wanted, and that wish outweighed George’s ambitions to shake the dust off the crummy town of Bedford Falls and see the world.
Beyond the love story and the great message, there is a great deal of humor throughout the movie, mostly from Mr. Potter of all people. The “warped, frustrated” Mr. Potter and his subtle, sarcastic comments help to break up the more serious parts of the movie. He delivers classic lines like “And a Happy New Year’s to you…in jail” and has snarky yet witty comments throughout. When George says that in his book Pa Bailey was much richer than Potter, Potter responds with “I’m not interested in your book”; when a young George confronts Potter in his father’s office, Potter quips that George’s behavior “gives you an idea of the Baileys”. Ruth, the family maid, also offers great comic support. In the scene where George tells his father that he thinks he’s a great guy, an eavesdropping Ruth pipes in “it’s about time one of you lunkheads said it”.
And that is why It’s a Wonderful Life succeeds in a way that few other movies or Christmas movies can because it is good on so many different levels. You want a feel-good story with a great message? There are few better movies than It’s a Wonderful Life. You want a touching romance story? George and Mary have you covered there. You want to laugh? Just pay attention and you will find plenty of humor, especially from Mr. Potter and Ruth.
The late, great Jimmy Stewart, who received a nod for Best Actor from the Academy for his performance, is as usual the anchor for the film. Everyman George Bailey is a character the viewer becomes attached to, and one that the audience roots for wholeheartedly. After George loses sight of his own self-worth and truly believes that he is “worth more dead than alive”, the audience prays, like the other characters in the movie, that George can find his way. The end, which is the best part of the movie, provides the gratification that the audience was seeking — the realization by George that life is a beautiful gift and with it comes the ability to create a positive impact on the world.
Although George never got to see the world as he originally intended, he was able to affect his little world and everyone in it in a big way. And this idea that we all shape our environment and the people around us is an incredibly important one, during the holidays and throughout the year.