The best thing that could have ever happened for It’s a Wonderful Life—one of the most popular films ever—was for it to fall out of favor. Not very successful upon its initial 1946 release, the film disappeared. Eventually its copyright expired, causing the movie to fall into public domain. This meant that as long as the film remained in public domain, any television network could air the film at any time without paying a dime. On television the film found a new audience and since then the film has become a staple of holiday television. Now it just would not be Christmas without It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a good-natured man from a small town that dreams of leaving his mark on the world. George plans to “shake the dust of this crummy little town of [his] back [he’s] going to see the world” (then come back to college and “see what they know”). George is first set to leave his hometown of Bedford Falls following his brother Harry’s (Todd Karns) high school graduation. While attending the graduation party, George is reunited with Mary (Donna Reed), the younger sister of one of his friends, whom George is shocked to learn has grown into quite a beautiful woman. Their walk home from the dance (where they danced there way right into a swimming pool) is romantic comedy at its finest. “What is it you want Mary? You want the moon? Well just say the word and I’ll through a lasso around it and pull it down.” It’s poetry.
Will Mary be enough to keep George in Bedford Falls? The question becomes a mute point when George’s father has a stroke and he is forced to stay and handle the affairs. Suddenly George finds himself giving up the life he dreamed of to stay and face his worst nightmare . . . taking over the family’s building and loan business.
George stays in Bedford Falls and marries Mary. George’s chances of leaving town on their honeymoon are even interfered with by the Great Depression. George must use his own money to keep his business from falling into the hands of the money-grubbing Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). As Mary stays home to take care of the family, George works his days away in his “crummy little office” at the building and loan.
On Christmas Eve, George’s business partner Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces eight thousand dollars, threatening not only the closure of the building and loan, but also jail for George. This finally pushes George to the edge and he contemplates suicide off a bridge. Enter Clarence (Henry Travers), George’s guardian angel. Since George is convinced that the world would be better without him, Clarence gives him an opportunity to see just what Bedford Falls would have become without him. In a movie that might otherwise be considered “Capra-corn,” this sequence is one of the darkest in film history.
Many critics (and Jimmy Stewart himself) have argued that the reason It’s a Wonderful Life was not a bigger hit when it was first released, was because 1946 audiences were not ready for the dark turn that the film took. But it is from this dark place that the movie ventures that one of Hollywood’s brightest and most joyful endings comes out of. For me personally, there is no other film that causes such an emotional reaction when I watch it as this. No matter how many time I watch the film, I can’t help but be choked up by the shower of generosity, hopefulness, love, friendship and beauty that make up this wonderful ending. And it would not have been nearly as effective if it were not for the scenes that preceded it. The darker the tunnel, the brighter the light at the end of it will be.
For both Stewart and director Frank Capra, this was the first movie following their service in the World War II. Stewart had previously starred in two Capra films: You Can’t Take it with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, both times playing a good, wholesome man with strong American values. Stewart’s George Bailey has a lot in common with these previous characters, but the role also served as an opportunity for Stewart to show off his darker side. It is this darker side that Stewart would make a living off in the years to follow, in such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo, and Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73.
Watching the film again for the umpteenth time, I noticed a lot of the small details that help set up the film’s later sequences. For instance, in an early scene George refers to his parents’ house as a boarding house. Then, when George returns to his home as it would be if he were not born, it is a boarding house. Similarly, Mary tells George that she married him to keep from being an old maid, and then later, she is an old maid. Even George’s wish “I wish I had a million dollars,” seems to come true (“hot dog!”).
Frank Capra was said to have a talent for casting and It’s a Wonderful Life is living proof of that. Stewart was always his pick to play George Bailey and he pulled Donna Reed out of obscurity for the role of Mary. He fills the supporting parts with such great character actors as Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame as the town “it-girl” Violet, H.B. Warner as the druggist Mr. Gower and Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver, respectively (the Sesame Street characters would be named after these two). Evil is personified by Lionel Barrymore as the cruel, conniving Mr. Potter and Oscar-winner Thomas Mitchell is perfect as the slightly loony Uncle Billy. And who would dare think that anyone could be a better guardian angel than Henry Travers.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a timeless film. Like fine wine it seems to get better with age and will likely be around for years and years to come. Even James Stewart and Frank Capra both named it as their favorite film. The only thing unfortunate about this movie is that it has been labeled a Christmas movie. This is just as wonderful a movie in July as it is in December. It’s a true classic; I give it an A+.