Why “It’s a Wonderful Life” Is the King of Christmas Movies

Far more than a sentimental classic, the Jimmy Stewart classic is a great work of art.

I can think of exactly one good reason not to watch It’s a Wonderful Life at least once each Christmas season, and that is to avoid traumatizing young children. I first tried to introduce my daughter to the classic Frank Capra film when she was seven. After about an hour of watching Jimmy Stewart’s everyman George Bailey struggle his way toward that fateful, snowy bridge, I looked down at Isabel, who was nestled under my arm. She looked horrified.

Its-a-Wonderful-life-foto“Are you okay?” I asked.

She burst into tears.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Do you want me to turn this off?”

“Yes!” she cried out. “You didn’t tell me this was about a poor, sad guy who wants to kill himself! Why is this a Christmas movie?!”

She was right. It’s a sobering story much of the way through, with a hero who never gets what he wants, and who learns that what he wants must change. Maybe that’s not the best fit for a kid’s Christmastime dreams. Four years later, Isabel likes the movie, but if you require more jovial affairs, you’re better off with Elf — or even Die Hard (after the kids have gone to bed).

Still, It’s a Wonderful Life is Hollywood’s greatest Christmas movie — the most well crafted and powerful piece of cinematic art you could revisit every year. And like all great film art, the more you watch it, the better it gets. Here’s why:

1. It’s not really a “Christmas movie.”

We’re awash in self-consciously Christmas movies: Elf and A Christmas Story and White Christmas and many more have real charms, but on repeat viewings they can reek of Christmas kitsch. It’s a Wonderful Life has a touch of the holidays about it, but watching it won’t give you a Christmas hangover.

Yes, the movie opens on Christmas Eve, as we hear a montage of prayers from the people of Bedford Falls for their troubled local hero, George Bailey. It ends on that same Christmas Eve, too, when those prayers are answered. But most everything in between is George’s backstory, with nary a jingle bell in sight.

Also, there’s this little irony, or perhaps it’s a Christmas miracle: It’s a Wonderful Life’s status as a Christmas classic is an accident of history. The movie was technically released in late December of 1946 because the producers wanted to get it out in time for Academy Awards consideration. But no one really saw it until its nationwide release in January 1947, when it fizzled at the box office. Then, in the early 1970s, due to a clerical error, the film entered the public domain, and so became available as free content for local TV stations. And as some of you may recall, they played it, and they played it a lot.

Hm, the public domain. So It’s a Wonderful Life is truly our movie, which is, fitting, because . . .

2. It’s about the working class struggle against the rich and powerful.

As Charles Dickens well knew, this theme is at the heart of the Christmas story. In Luke’s gospel, after Mary learns she is pregnant with Jesus, she offers a song that we call the Magnificat. The song includes these lines:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

George Bailey is an embodiment of the hope Mary expresses here. George spends most of his career in direct confrontation with Mr. Potter, a Scrooge-like tycoon who owns most of the property in Bedford Falls, much of it snatched up during the Great Depression. George’s “measly one-horse institution,” the Bailey Building and Loan, is the locals’ only recourse against Potters’ predatory lending practices. George’s life’s work, like his father’s before him, is a fight against Potter on behalf of the town’s working class immigrants.

The above speech is a centerpiece of an eloquent script that is bound up with concerns for the working class, fair economic treatment, and the dignity of all individuals. (Capra deftly cast actors with thick accents to play the blue collar characters.) It’s a Wonderful Life leans left. Indeed, in a 1947 memo, the FBI expressed concerns about the film’s Communist sympathies.

Of course, it’s since been embraced by Red States as much as reds. Perhaps that’s due to this next point . . .

3. It’s great cinematic art.

It’s a Wonderful Life should be considered far more than a sentimental classic — this is high-end popular art. We ought to revere it in the same way we do Casablanca, another just-another-studio-product that we’ve (rightly) elevated to masterwork status.

Capra was a seasoned director by the time he made It’s a Wonderful Life, and it shows. The film’s visual structure is precise, yet feels lived in. The opening shot of a snow-drenched Bedford Falls welcome sign — “You are now in Bedford Falls” — is a message to us, who — via some deft filmmaking — are about to be immersed in this bustling little town.

3614140_640pxTake that snowfall as one indication of the extraordinary craft on display. For years, Hollywood used bleached cornflakes for snow, which produced a lot of crunching by the actors’ feet and a lot of sound problems that had to be overcome. For this film, Capra had the RKO Effects Department invent a foam-based machine that allowed snow to fall and accumulate silently so that the cameras could capture actors talking and moving around at the same time. That’s a big reason why those snowy scenes feel so immersive and whole.

There’s much more to say about the craft of It’s a Wonderful Life, but I’ll just mention one scene that captures Capra at his best.

In an early flashback sequence, we see a 12-year-old George Bailey in its-a-wonderful-life-national-geographichis first job at Mr. Gower’s drugstore, running the soda counter and delivering prescriptions. The scene builds to a tear-jerking climax when George prevents a drunken Gower from accidentally poisoning a patient, but this one scene also manages to telegraph the entire course of the film: we meet George’s lifelong love, Mary (“George Bailey, I’ll love you to the day I die,” she whispers); we learn that George plans to travel the world; we learn that his Uncle Harry has a bad memory (a flaw that will lead to George’s near-undoing); we see George’s first confrontation with Mr. Potter; we watch him (literally) push up against interests; we see him take risks to save Mr. Gower’s reputation and a little boy’s life.

All this narrative information is delivered in six minutes of film time. None of it is underlined with sweeping music or attention-drawing shots. None of it is offset into its own scene. In these taut few moments, tons of story seeds are planted that will later spring to life, both visually and narratively. Lots of story and character points and visual information, delivered quickly and smoothly, capturing our attention and our emotions — that’s Hollywood cinema at its finest.

It’s a Wonderful Life is also filled with powerhouse acting performances, including Donna Reed as George’s wife in a standout female role that matches the male lead strength for strength. And, of course, Jimmy Stewart, who is at his absolute best here, doing the kind of realism acting that Marlon Brando would later make famous. Stewart was already beloved by movie fans when It’s a Wonderful Life came out, but mostly for comic and everyman roles. Later in his career, directors like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Anthony Mann would draw on Stewart’s deeper layers for a series of more nuanced performances. Watch Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Rear Window, and you’ll detect hints of a desperate George Bailey underneath.

So, yes, you might want to hold off on showing It’s a Wonderful Life to the youngest members of your household. It may disturb them more than delight them. But when they’re ready, the movie has more to offer than most anything else on your Christmas movie shelf.

Patton Dodd
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  • Martin Hughes

    Never cared for it very much, particularly because the theft by the evil banker from the poor little assistant is never really negated or compensated. The salvation of the loved central character is all important and the not so central characters, the real human mass, matter much less.

    • outragex

      On the other hand, the reason everyone donates to save Bailey, the central character, is because he always valued, supported and sacrificed for the “real human mass” according to the story line. I always thought that the evil Potter escaping punishment shows that earthly justice is flawed. At any rate, Potter’s scheme was foiled, Bailey continues to run the S&L, and we anticipate Bailey leading a fulfilled life vs. Potter’s misery. The message may be that grace, gratitude and a love of life is more important than the money that Potter stole.

  • outragex

    This is one of my favorite movies. There is another facet in this movie as well. George Bailey represents the prototypical middle-age, family man. In this view, most middle age dads love their families, but chafe at the responsibility, loss of freedom, boredom and hard work of family life. Many of us realize that we will not set the world on fire as we hoped in our younger dreams. Time for great achievement or change in status is short. Bailey realizes that he was measuring success by the wrong criteria and learns to count his many blessings. Sappy at one level, yet demonstrating greater truths at another.

    BTW-The scene where drunk Uncle Harry walks off camera and causes a clatter is also a Hollywood classic. Reportedly, a stagehand turned over a latter by accident. Jimmy Stewart without missing a beat looks off screen as if to say “you okay,” and Uncle Harry’s character ad libs “I’m all right.” Two experienced actors turning a mistake into a deftly comical touch that adds to the movie.