I love Christmas. I love everything about it. The weather, the lights, the food, the presents, the music, the traditions, and most of all…the movies. In my youth, come December my family would spend every free night watching a different Christmas movie. Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, three different versions of A Christmas Carol (including the Mickey Mouse version, the best one according to my older sister), we had a standard rotation that didn’t change very often. We somehow let Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause into the rotation at some point. I’m still trying to get that out of there. The movie that we almost always saved til Christmas Eve was my favorite Christmas movie, and one of the best movies ever made: It’s a Wonderful Life written and directed by the great Frank Capra.
It’s difficult to express the level of which I love this movie. In my preparation for this article I considered being critical of the film and taking about the things that didn’t work as well. But I found it to be impossible. Nothing doesn’t work well. Everything is awesome. This movie is amazing. Anyone who disagrees is stupid.
The story of George Bailey is a story of the rejection of the American dream as the path to happiness. George has vast dreams. He wants to travel everywhere, learn everything he can, plant his flag in the world and never be forgotten. He never specifically mentions it, but a part of that plan is the amassing great wealth; it’s capitalism in its purest form. It’s also not in the cards for old George Bailey. His dreams will allude him. He will never leave his home town. He will never be rich. He will never travel the world. There are people that look at this and see it as depressing, and I get that. It’s a sad realization. In fact, my sister hates the movie for this exact reason. But the people that focus on only this part are missing the point entirely.
Let’s be frank for a second here. The majority of the people in this world are never going to accomplish their dreams. Their lives are not going to go the way they envisioned them when they were 20 years old. They will not live up to their perceived potential. That’s depressing, yes. But what Frank Capra is saying with this film is that it’s ok. That we can still be happy. That even though the American dream eludes our grasp, we can still have a wonderful life. Sometimes it takes a little push to come to this realization. For George Bailey, it was a literal glimpse at the world without him. The rest of us have to be a little more imaginative.
This is all great stuff. But what makes It’s a Wonderful Life better than great, what makes it a masterpiece, is that it goes beyond this. George’s big moments, the ones that shape his life and bring him further and further away from his dreams are always within his control. George Bailey isn’t stuck in Bedford Falls because he lost control of his life. He’s stuck in Bedford Falls because he chose to be. George chose to stay on at the Building and Loan after his father died. He chose to send his brother off to college and when Harry came back with a new wife and an exciting new job, George chose to let him take that job. He chose to spend his honeymoon money on the Bailey Building and Loan customers during the bank run. It’s no coincident that these choices are always the altruistic ones. The movie is telling us that to do the right thing sometimes we have to put aside what we want. That maybe the old capitalistic American mantra of greed and self-interest aren’t the best way to live your life. After all, the character who most represents capitalism in the movie, the banker Mr. Potter, is very clearly set up as the villain. George is stuck in Bedford Falls because he is a good man.
Speaking of Bedford Falls, It’s a Wonderful Life is great because the city feels real. Capra spent an exorbitant amount of money building a huge practical set for the central square of Bedford Falls and it pays off in spades. The city is alive and it makes you feel like you could actually walk around in it. Additionally, the residents of Bedford Falls feel as fully realized as the city. Bert the Cop, Ernie the Cab Driver, Violet, Harry Bailey, Sam Wainwright (hee haw), Uncle Billy, Mr. Gower, Nick the Bartender, Mr. Martini (is it ok if a movie is super racially insensitive to Italians if it’s written by an Italian?), even Mr. Potter! They’re all fully fleshed out characters. They live and breath. In the closing scene of the film we don’t just see random townspeople stop by and help out George Bailey, we see the characters we’ve spent the entire film getting to know. The people that George helped are back to help George Bailey. And because the movie takes the time to establish them all as real people, in that moment we love them as much as George does.
As for George and Mary themselves. What else is there to be said about Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, two of the best actors in the history of cinema? All I can think of is that their performance was so impacting that I have, in some small way, compared every romantic relationship in my life to these two.
If I’m being honest, I get why people don’t like this movie. It’s really cheesy and extremely idealistic and people don’t usually enjoy watching the hero of the story fail to realize his dreams. But, especially at this time of year, don’t well all want a little cheese? A little unwavering idealism? Because if there’s one thing all people have in common it’s their fear of not mattering, of not living a life worth a damn. And in those times, George Bailey and Frank Capra are here to show us that maybe all we need is a little change in perspective. That maybe, even though we didn’t do everything we set out to, that we really do have a wonderful life.
Have a very Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you’re able to surrounded yourself with friends and loved ones. After all, in the immortal words of Clarence the angel, “No man is a failure who has friends.”