The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. It's a Wonderful Life (1946/USA/dir. Frank Capra) appeared at #10 on my original list.
What it is • You may know this one: George Bailey (James Stewart) dreams of escaping his small town in upstate New York. Family crises, business troubles, and true love (however he might try to resist it) foil his plans for college, world travel, and a grand career. Threatened with financial catastrophe and public humiliation on Christmas Eve just after World War II, George contemplates suicide but an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who has been told George's life story in a series of "flashbacks," intervenes to show him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he'd never been born, teaching him to be thankful for what he has and proud of what he's accomplished. Well...my Favorites list has hopefully been a healthy mix of under-the-radar recommendations and familiar classics. Few are more familiar than It's a Wonderful Life, certainly as celebrated a movie as Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz though its trajectory is closer to the latter than the former - forgotten for years before television gave it second life. In fact, more than almost any other film in the history of Hollywood, It's a Wonderful Life has become synonymous with a particular ritual - and not just any ritual, but one of the most important in American culture. This has become the Christmas movie since PBS began airing it as holiday counter-programming in the seventies. In the process, attention settled on the "see what life is like if you'd never been born" high concept and especially the exuberant setpiece closing the movie with a joyous bang, all "Auld Lang Syne" and bells ringing on Christmas trees. It goes so well with eggnog and heapings of Christmas dinner crowding the coffee table in front of the TV, carols competing for attention from nearby stereos, and relatives gathered together in a living room, their chatter overwhelming the dialogue onscreen. Perhaps because of this taken-for-granted familiarity, or the fact that the Greatest Generation who experienced its timeline is now in its nineties, or simply because the black-and-white studio style can no longer claim the universality it once held, It's a Wonderful Life's dominance has become more precarious in recent years. More purely light-hearted fare like A Christmas Story (also set in the forties, but shot in color in the eighties) have threatened its perch, as have hundreds of other Christmas films aired on hundreds of other channels (and thousands available on platforms like Netflix) - long gone are the days when families had to select from only a few options for holiday party TV. I think it would be a pity if It's a Wonderful Life did slide back into quasi-obscurity, a favorite among cineastes but unappreciated by the wider public. It's much more than just a feel-good Christmas movie, but that status allows it to slip a deeper perspective and more ambitious approach into a diet of December fluff.
Why I like it •
Bedford Falls is a fantastically impressive microcosm, a self-contained universe worthy of a soap opera that spans decades, yet somehow contained within a single two-hour film. Think about how remarkable this achievement is. The last act of the movie relies on our intimate knowledge of the town and its people, not just over the previous day, which we followed closely, but through the past twenty-five years. We must know how it changed, who fared well and who didn't, how George Bailey's path intersected with others. We must not only know this, we must feel connected to it as if we've spent years with these people ourselves. Part of It's a Wonderful Life's achievement is its evocation of a shared history: its characters exist very much in the first half of the twentieth century, experiencing everything that its original audience members had - war, depression, technological change, mass epidemic (Gower's son dies during the 1919 influenza outbreak), trends in popular culture. Combine this with personal touchstones like graduation, marriage, raising children, establishing a home, and the film's resonance becomes clear. That said, the film only grew more popular with time (indeed, its downbeat topicality may have hurt business in the short run). Part of its resonance is due to the hard work of the filmmakers themselves, scripting a convincing narrative that manages to be both richly anecdotal and plot-advancing, and crafting performances that feel fully lived-in. This is what I love so much about It's a Wonderful Life; despite the Yuletide good cheer of its finale and the clever Twilight Zone-esque twist of its premise, I'm really in it for the preceding hour and a half, the immersion into a community that moves and breathes with utter conviction. As a Twin Peaks fan, it feels like I'm watching that sprawling show and the radical inversion of Fire Walk With Me (and, who knows, perhaps of the upcoming continuation too) condensed into one single film. Initially, in fact, it was even closer to a serialized TV show than that for me: I was presented with the first half-hour in a music class in second grade, and had to wait in suspense to watch more (as I recall, when we returned from Christmas vacation, the teacher casually mentioned that he'd returned the tape to the rental store; I had to wait for another opportunity to pick up where I had left off with bated breath). And another Twin Peaks comparison - for years my family owned and watched a rather cheap copy of It's a Wonderful Life purchased at the local supermarket. It turns out several scenes had been deleted from that version (most notably George's "alternate universe" encounter with his Bizarro Mom at the boarding house, and also the scene where George promises to lasso the moon, which is referred to throughout the rest of the movie!). So it was years before I caught TV screenings that restored these scenes, uncanny "missing pieces" side by side with familiar material, rounding out the full picture.
More from me • One of my favorite reviews for this site was of It's a Wonderful Life; I discussed its politics, psychology, and historical context for my "Big Ones" series. Surprisingly, that's it for my coverage, other than a fleeting image here or there. My DVD copy of it wouldn't burn, so I couldn't include it in my video clip series.
How you can see it • Just keep an eye on your TV Guide this December! (Apparently NBC acquired exclusive rights in the nineties despite decades of public domain access, which smells like some BS to me). If you're in more of a rush, It's a Wonderful Life is available on DVD from Netflix and for digital rental/purchase on these sites (none of which are particularly cheap.) The subject of how the hell to watch a film you'd think would be more easily watchable was tackled in this article a couple years ago.
What do you think? • Is this your favorite Christmas movie, or do you prefer something more lighter (like A Christmas Story)? Did you ever take a break from watching it, and come back surprised aboout what type of movie it was? In what ways do the themes and approaches of It's a Wonderful Life evolve from other Capra films?
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Yesterday: Citizen Kane (#11)
Tomorrow: The Godfather Part II (#9)