It's A Wonderful Life was released in the U.S. on 20 December 1946.
Most of the films I have watched over six decades, I have seen once and that’s enough. They passed the time as they were meant to do, did their job to entertain (or not), were memorable for a variety of reasons (or not) and can be safely discarded in the dustbin of history with all the other ho-hummery of life. But, there are some films that I have watched countless times and I know great sections of their scripts off by heart. I am talking about Casablanca, The Third Man, The Searchers, North By North-West, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, The French Connection and several others that I treat like precious belongings. They are my films, mine I tell you, comfort blankets in a way, old friends that I never tire of seeing.
As Christmas draws us in, another film joins the list. It’s A Wonderful Life pops up regularly on television and has become a firm favourite with many people. It is 70 years since the film’s release in December 1946 and its appeal never diminishes. It is a film of many layers - darkness, light, fantasy, drama, comedy, sadness, joy, a fable, a story with a message about humanity, a brilliantly stitched together piece of timeless entertainment. It was not intended as a Christmas-only movie but that is where it seems to fit in the season where we are encouraged to think positively about life and about peace and goodwill.
It’s A Wonderful Life is based on a story called The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. In 1943, RKO Pictures bought the rights as a possible vehicle for Cary Grant but eventually sold it on to Frank Capra’s company, Liberty Films. Capra had directed It Happened One Night (1934) starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936) with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, Lost Horizon (1937) with Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt and Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) starring James Stewart and Claude Rains, before getting involved with wartime documentaries. His first feature film after the war was It’s A Wonderful Life with James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and Ward Bond.
Stewart plays George Bailey, a businessman in the town of Bedford Falls. The film opens with his family, friends and neighbours praying for him and the prayers are heard loud and clear by the angels above. The senior angel decides that a trainee, Clarence – “he’s got the IQ of a rabbit but he’s got the faith of a child” – should be given a chance to earn his wings by visiting Earth and helping “discouraged” George to think seriously “about throwing away God’s greatest gift”, his life. Before Clarence sets off, he is briefed about George’s life.
George has been ticking along nicely with his family and his work, although he has adventurous ambitions and itchy feet to leave his “crumby little town”. He plans to go to college and then travel the world. But his plans are thrown into disarray by the death of his father and the chicanery of banker Potter, “the richest and meanest man in the county”, who tries to put the Baileys out of business. George marries his childhood friend Mary and resigns himself to staying and raising a family. He oozes compassion for the community while the devious Potter oozes greed. The banker exploits an opportunity – a mislaid $8,000 - provided by George’s unreliable uncle to increase the pressure to cheat the Baileys into bankruptcy and it all becomes too much for George to handle. The authorities close in on the loan company. He goes off the rails and ends up contemplating suicide on a bridge. As he is about to throw himself in the river, he is distracted by a big splash made by AS2 (Angel Second Class) Clarence who cries out for George to save him from drowning.
As they dry out, Clarence (played quietly and sweetly by Henry Travers) explains that he is trying to earn his wings by succeeding as George’s guardian angel. Sceptical George dismisses the notion but blurts out: “I wish I’d never been born.” His flippant wish is granted and suddenly George never existed and Bedford Falls is now Pottersville. Everyone that George knows doesn’t know who he is – not his mother, his wife, his friends. The town is the same layout but with different building facades. He can see what life is like without him. It is a miserable scenario.
On the verge of insanity, George begs God and Clarence to restore his life. His prayers are answered and in the concluding scenes, George is seen running through Bedford Falls in the snow shouting “Merry Christmas” at everyone and everything. He goes home, hugs his children and his wife and even seems happy that he will still be arrested for the discrepancy in the business’s accounts. But the townsfolk, reacting to a “George is in trouble” campaign contribute more than enough cash to replace the missing money. To the strains of Auld Lang Syne and big happy smiles all round, the moral of the story is underlined – it’s a wonderful life.
Clarence’s last message to George is this: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings! Love Clarence”.
So, why is this film such a classic watched again and again by people like me. It is too long at 130 minutes, the editing and continuity is clunky, the story is a mixed bag of love story, comedy, tragedy, drama and pantomime. Some scenes are scarily dark and it is tied up by a possibly too neat, jolly ending to assure us that everything is fine. In some ways, it shouldn’t work as well as it does. Some people think it is overly sentimental, over-egged and overacted with too many melodramatic moments jostling with the lighter touches. Of course, it is all of the above and much more, a film of layers and lessons, albeit simple messages; appreciate what you have, money isn’t everything, however bad things get, there’s still hope, each one of us can make a difference and so on.
We have to remember that this film was made in the immediate aftermath of a terrible war and if ever the world needed some kind of reassurance, some reminders of the important things like family and friends and, darn it, some entertainment to lift the heart, soul and spirit, that was the time. In the uncertain and worrying world right now, It’s A Wonderful Life can still deliver its magical fantasy, allowing us to enjoy this timeless fable and maybe encourage us to appraise ourselves as individuals and contributors to the wider world. This might be overstating the film but it does pack its own unique punch emotionally.
And what of the cast? James Stewart as George Bailey gives the role everything he has to offer, a tour-de-force of acting and quality that is astounding to watch. Donna Reed as childhood sweetheart Mary is a stable foil for George’s personality changes, providing warmth, tenderness and a little steel here and there. The two leads are a great partnership. The stereotypical villain of the piece, banker Potter, played wonderfully by Lionel Barrymore, is just missing a moustache to twirl. His very presence encourages hisses and boos when he is on screen. Uncle Billy Bailey, played splendidly by Thomas Mitchell, is an archetypal drunken buffoon and we just know he’s going to play a big part in the lost money plotline that swerves the story into its angel phase. The other cast members, including a small part with Ward Bond as a cop, are nicely judged.
It’s A Wonderful Life is, as I said at the beginning, one of a cluster of old friends that I like to see occasionally. I like to see it in its black and white original version. A colourised version is available and it may appeal to new viewers who recoil from monochrome in this super-fussy age, but it’s not for me. I am an old school film fan and It’s A Wonderful Life is an old school movie that, seventy years on, can still resonate, still seep into our hearts, still rouse the good traits of humanity and still entertain. Film critic Barry Norman describes it as “simply heart-warming, the grand-daddy of all feel-good movies.” It is always welcome. Like an old friend.