In general, I dislike feel-good movies, especially if they take place during a holiday. I find the experience of watching ‘goofy’ dysfunctional families learning that ‘family is what really matters’ during some holiday ‘hijinks’ so miserable that I am often tempted to turn off the television. With that being said, I love Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, mainly because it falls into none of the aforementioned stereotypes of a holiday movie.
Most of the film follows the life of George Bailey as seen through the eyes of two angels. As the film opens, we see a group of boys, sliding down a frozen river on old metal shovels. George stands off to the side, acting as a makeshift announcer with his megaphone. His brother, Harry, slides down the river, but doesn’t stop when he reaches the group of boys. He continues straight on until he reaches the point where the ice stops and the river begins. As he flails about in the water, George comes rushing over. He dives into the freezing water and pulls Harry out, saving his brother’s life. This is George’s first act of selflessness, and certainly, not his last.
The film then goes on to paint a beautiful picture of a man’s life. Love, loss, happiness, and rage are all expertly woven together over the course of the film. The movie really shines in its second hour, when the question of “What if George Bailey was never born?” is posed. The movie suddenly finds its purpose as an enlightening tale of learning to love life again. When George Bailey realizes that his brother Harry (now a war hero) would have died if George hadn’t been alive to save him, you can see his heart break on screen. It’s devastating, but it’s also wonderfully moving. I don’t want to spoil anything more, as that would ruin some of the fun, but it’s safe to say that after the movie is over, the outside world might look slightly different than before you started the movie.
The entire production could have been laughable – a stupefying drama about loving life – but instead sweeps the audience away in two hours of pure cinematic art. There are genuine laughs, genuine surprises, moments when we are frustrated, and moments when we are touched. Each scene unfolds with a brisk ease, the time jumps and abrupt mood changes feeling natural. There are deep themes here of depression and corruption, but there’s an air of lightness throughout the entire film. Even in the tensest moments, George always slips in a deadpan line. It’s a drama, for sure, but an insanely entertaining one.
While every aspect of the movie is admirable, the main reason the film works so well is because George, played with incredible precision by James Stewart, is a truly good man. When his dreams of traveling the world are dashed, or when his life comes tumbling down around him, the audience still has a sliver of hope that everything will be alright, because it’s just too hard to believe that such a bright, hardworking man could collapse.
Yes, the movie can sometimes be a tad predictable. But the film’s brilliance is it doesn’t matter what the movie’s about. The movie could take place in anytime and could be about anyone. The film’s real purpose is the connection between the audience and the screen, the way each shot envelopes the heart with true feeling. You know something is a masterpiece when your mind can tell what’s going to happen next, yet you’re still on the edge of you’re seat, waiting with joyous anticipation, hoping that everything will work out in the end.