Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is the unassailable Christmas movie classic. No other Christmas film comes close.
After a life of hard work and sacrifice, George Bailey is on the brink of financial ruin. On Christmas Eve, he resolves to kill himself, so God assigns Clarence, a second class angel, to intervene. Clarence “earns his wings” by dissuading George from suicide. He does this by showing George what the world would be like if George had never existed:
Everyone knows the plot, but I’m surprised how many people have never seen the film. It must be testament to the proliferation of parodies and cultural references, that so many know the story, but so few have watched it.
There are nearly as many interpretations of the movie as there are parodies. When it was released, the FBI considered it subversive propaganda; evidence of the Communist infiltration of Hollywood. Director Frank Capra claimed the very opposite: the film was intended to demonstrate not only “the individual’s belief in himself,” but also “combat a modern trend toward atheism.”
I’ve encountered similarly conflicting interpretations among friends I’ve watched it with. Is George Bailey best characterised by noble sacrifice and generosity, or by self-pity and complaint? Is he a saint, or a patsy? I think the complexity of Jimmy Stewart’s character is the movie’s saving grace, and a complement to the sometimes maudlin excesses of the screenplay.
My own opinion is this: George Bailey is a generous man who loves, but he’s also an angry man who hates. His defects are serious, and he sometimes permits those defects to define him. Despite that, he’s one of cinema’s most attractive characters — probably because we see in him our own selves.
It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really a film about Christmas. It’s a film about George Bailey’s redemption in and through the cross. You could argue that it’s a better fit for Easter.
Nonetheless, if you haven’t seen it, you should watch it now. This Christmas if possible!