“Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way.” – George Bailey (James Stewart)
Frank Capra’s films had always shown the American hero conquer corruption, but in It’s a Wonderful Life, his protagonist faces something far more devious — his own self-doubt.
George Bailey (James Stewart) hooks the girl of his dreams, Mary (Donna Reed), only to find his life complicated by the onslaught of the Great Depression. His family’s building and loan company is in danger of being taken — like the rest of the town — by Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the evil banker whose goal is to own all of Bedford Falls. When all seems lost on one Christmas Eve, George goes to the bridge to jump, swearing that it would have been better if he had never been born. Luckily, guardian angel-in-training Clarence (Henry Travers) is there to save him by proving him wrong.
It’s A Wonderful Life isn’t a classic because of its actors, although Stewart and Reed make up an iconic couple with chemistry and sweetness. Instead, it’s a testament to American values, charity and faith. In a Christian-based nation like the US. George’s entire goal to keep the town afloat characterizes him as the savior of free enterprise that allows Bedford Falls to remain a quaint part of Americana, not a single monopolist’s property.
But as uplifting as the ending and message of Capra’s film is, for a Christmas film meant to instill goodwill in its viewers the film is utterly depressing. Nothing goes right for George, not even when Mary makes good on her promise that she’ll love him until the day she dies. In one of the more comedic moments of the film, when he has her cornered in a bush after her robe has gotten snagged on a branch, everything seems to be jolly until a car pulls up to alert George that his father has had a stroke. The man can’t catch a break until the very end, and the journey to that moment is long and plodding. This isn’t rare for Capra, but it certainly doesn’t make the film a very fit one for “the most wonderful time of the year.”
But just because the movie takes place on Christmas Eve doesn’t mean it has to be classified solely as a holiday film. In fact, that detracts from the true messages of the movie — that kindness will always be repaid, evil will get its comeuppance and generosity is the only currency we need. Those in themselves compose a sentiment worth sharing all year round.