Suicidal despair is a peculiar crux upon which to rest a feelgood Christmas film. But It’s A Wonderful Life contains a host of elements that don’t exactly ring with holiday cheer. These include broken dreams, missed opportunities, financial responsibility, and the sexiest phone scene in Production Code era cinema. Director Frank Capra’s heart-warmer is a snow globe in flux, its cuddly homeliness often disturbingly obscured.
Generally neglected upon its release in 1946, it’s only in the seven decades since that the film has taken its rightful place in that most exclusive of cinematic categories: essential viewing. Capra was never a critical darling (‘Capra-corn’ was the term that sniffier critics gave to his sentimental approach), but It’s A Wonderful Life now towers as perhaps the most beloved tale of personal struggle and spiritual redemption in Anywhere USA.
Our hero George Bailey (James Stewart) yearns to leave home, even though Bedford Falls has been particularly good to him – whether as a boy working at his local chemists, falling in love with his childhood sweetheart, or being in the prayers (literally) of its townsfolk. But this has meant sacrificing his youthful dreams, nicely captured in one of Hollywood’s first freeze-frame shots as he measures how big a suitcase he wants.
As soon as George starts to feel happily resigned to his lot, a misplaced bank deposit puts him and his family on the brink of penury. Enter Henry Travers as Clarence, an angel (but second class – he still needs to earn his wings) sent to talk George out of throwing himself off a bridge. What follows is the film’s now legendary conceit – George gets to see what the world would have been like if he had never been born.
So far, so Dickensian. It’s A Wonderful Life indeed has the feel of Victorian melodrama, and its genesis as a short story called The Greatest Gift – itself published in a series of 200 Christmas Cards – goes some way to explaining its occasional saccharinity. But if you leave your cynicism at the door, and let Capra perform his magic, then the film begins to hold you with the same care and attention as a hug from a loved one.
Because who doesn’t want to feel that their lives are valuable, in however small a way? It’s A Wonderful Life was Stewart’s first role since serving as a pilot in World War II, and he was scared that he’d lost his touch. But this is, in fact, an apt allegory for the film’s restorative emotional arc – from staring down into death, to looking up hopefully next to a Christmas tree.
After all, snow globes are only so pretty once they’ve been shook.