… Although it isn’t strictly a Christmas film now, is it? The film begins and ends on Christmas Eve but mainly it is a straight dramatic retelling of the life of George Bailey. Poor George keeps trying to get out of his small town of Bedford Falls but is pulled back time and time again for various reasons… most of them having to do with Henry F Potter, the richest man in town.
The film chronicles George’s life from childhood, graduating from Bedford Falls High School, and his many battles with Potter, as he tries to take over George’s family-owned bank, the Bailey Building and Loan. James Stewart was nominated for the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for playing George and he manages to bring both gravitas and light to a role that could have become too dark.
Although director Frank Capra and stars Stewart and Donna Reed have collective filmographies that consist of a couple of hundred films, they all cite It’s a Wonderful Life as their favourite. Capra even took this one step further in his autobiography, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”
… which, is a pretty big claim but it’s great he’s so self assured. Good for you, Frank!
However, in its initial run the film lost money- largely because Capra, who trained as an engineer before becoming a director, went over budget, even going so far as to engineer a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed an audio problem for Capra (due to crunching rather loudly under the actors’ feet!). Capra refused to dub the snow scenes and so opted to mix foamite (found in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water, to create a less noisy option.
The film also lost out for being, in many people’s eyes, a peculiarly downbeat way of celebrating the festive season, what with depression and suicide being a rather major plot-point!
It is perhaps for this reason that many publishers originally rejected The Greatest Gift, the short story the film is based upon. Its author Philip Van Doren Stern eventually decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for Christmas. He printed 200 copies of the story and sent it out as a 21 page Christmas card. A producer at RKO Pictures ended up in possession of one and bought the movie rights for $10,000.
After many years of television screenings, particularly at Christmas, the film has slowly become a cinematic Holiday tradition and is now one of the most beloved films of all time. It’s certainly one of my favourites and is an outstanding film, underrated for its great narrative quality- which, yes, can be obscured by ‘the message’, the sentiment, and the schmaltz.
Possibly the film resonates with viewers thanks to its close narrative ties to another great Christmas classic that has long lived in the collective consciousness: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The relationship between the two stories is both close and yet not entirely straightforward…
It’s A Wonderful Life is not an American version, nor adaptation, nor sequel.
Yet, it echoes Dickens’ story in many ways: Both set on Christmas Eve, both about business men with finance playing a key role, both involve supernatural intervention which gives a man a chance to witness an alternate reality of his own life which then goes on to cause him to reevaluate his life and future behaviour. Both stories also establish a tension between on the one hand, Christmas and Christian charity, and on the other unchecked capitalism. They both drive home an essentially Christian message: how do our choices affect others and do we make a difference in the world?
However, the original story, The Greatest Gift, bears much less resemblance to A Christmas Carol so perhaps there was a little movie-making-magic (slash tinkering of an economically beneficial kind) going on behind the scenes here…
Whilst A Christmas Carol is about a man so wicked (read: clinically depressed) he actively allows life to pass him by, George is a good, ambitious man but so busy helping others he feels as if life has passed him by. Despondent (read: clinically depressed), he wishes he had never been born and sees how awful the world would be without him- a realization Ebenezer Scrooge has thrust upon him. These two men are not the same in any way. George is a positive and admirable figure no matter how much money he has.
So, a short rebuttal to some obstinate criticisms of the schmaltzy ending: it’s Christmas. No one needs a film with Christmas ending in suicide. George talks to an angel. Thus this is not the film for crushing realism.