The year was 1946. America has just triumphed in a war that took place in two separate parts of the world. As America tried to shake off the horrors inflicted upon mankind by the axis powers and return to a normal way of life, two films would capture the feeling of America in its post-World War II phase. The first film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and receive high critical acclaim. The second would be poorly reviewed by the critics, largely ignored by the movie-going public, and would disappear to the world of public domain status where it would languish and almost disappear completely. The first film was director William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, a film depicting the return of American G.I.s after the war and their experiences in trying to fit back into life. The second film? None other than everyone’s favorite Christmas movie. From a box office failure to an American icon, It’s a Wonderful Life not only represents the best of what filmmaking can achieve, but what being an American was all about.
In 1945, filmmaker Frank Capra, who had previously directed critically-acclaimed and hugely popular films such as It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and You Can’t Take It with You, was looking for a project to direct for his new company, Liberty Films. During the war, Capra directed military documentaries for the War Department and had been very vocal in his criticism of the films Hollywood was making about the experience of being in a war. When the war was over, Hollywood studios like Paramount, RKO, Warner Brothers, MGM, and 20th Century Fox wanted nothing to do with him. And so Liberty Films was born. To begin his own studio, Capra chose a short story by Philip Van Doren called “The Greatest Gift” as his first project – a short story which had been published by Van Doren himself as a Christmas card in 1943 and had languished in both script and novel form. The screenplay would bounce around between some of the better-known Hollywood screenwriters of the era, including Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets, Marc Connelly, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Michael Wilson, Dorothy Parker, and Jo Swerling. When Capra set out to finally make the film, he chose legendary actor Jimmy Stewart to star in it. Like Capra, Stewart had made quite a name for himself as an actor before the war. And like Capra, Stewart found himself out of work and being rejected by Hollywood studios after returning from the war five years later.
When It’s a Wonderful Life opened in 1946, it was panned by film critics and didn’t really connect with paying audiences. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost out to…you guessed it, The Best Years of Our Lives. And while Best Years… received its fair share of fame, It’s a Wonderful Life was labelled as “subversive” and a “vessel for communist propaganda” by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI in 1947, during the Red Scare. The FBI and Hoover who saw the film as evidence that Hollywood was under the influence of “communist sympathizers” due to the fact that wealthy banker Mr. Potter, the antagonist in the film, was portrayed as a greedy villain. When Liberty Films eventually and inevitably went bankrupt, the rights and ownership of It’s a Wonderful Life lapsed and the film entered public domain where it would remain, nearly forgotten, for the better part of almost thirty-five years. And then something funny happened.
In the early days of cable, stations looking for cheap content started playing It’s a Wonderful Life (in some cases around the clock.) Some versions of the film were damaged, some were grainy black-and-white copies. Ted Turner’s Superstation (now known as TBS) even began playing a colorized version of the film. Many thought the damage done to the film would be irreparable. But instead, It’s a Wonderful Life started gaining new life as a traditional holiday classic. Fan clubs formed. Seneca Falls, New York (the closest approximation for Bedford Falls from the film) started holding yearly festivals in honor of the film. And George Bailey became part of the mainstream of how Americans celebrate Christmas. By the time NBC bought the exclusive broadcast rights to the film in 1994, the film had been digitally restored to its original quality.
Why does It’s a Wonderful Life resonate with audiences after all these years? Is it just the nostalgia of a time gone by during a holiday season filled with moments of longing for the “old days?” Perhaps. Is it the performance of Jimmy Stewart? Yes, of course. His portrayal of George Bailey is timeless. James Stewart would create the role of the familiar, who-couldn’t-love-him common man that the likes of Tom Hanks would perfect with his own body of work. The subtle looks Stewart makes throughout the film, the subtext of the scene with his father, the heat of the scene with Donna Reed at the phone. His prayer while sitting at the bar in a timeless moment of desperation; his shouts for joy still ring in our ears when he finds Zuzu’s petals.
There is much to be said for the plight of George Bailey. Some have called It’s a Wonderful Life an American version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but the differences between the two are quite significant. Ebenezer Scrooge is made to see the folly of his greedy ways by looking at the lives of people he has hurt, the people who may have hurt him, and the innocent citizens who have been affected by his miserly practices.
George Bailey, on the other hand, is the kind of man we all wish we could be. Most of the film is spent retelling his life – the sacrifices he makes by keeping the building and loan open after his father dies, when his brother goes to college instead of him, when he uses his own money to keep the building and loan open during the Depression, and when the war breaks out and he is denied the opportunity to serve because of his hearing loss (which he got saving his brother’s life as a boy.) Again and again and again, as George settles into a marriage with Mary that he wasn’t sure he wanted and raises a family in the town he always wanted to leave, we are shown time and again how George put his family, friends, and the town of Bedford Falls ahead of his own needs. And when an accounting shortchange (not of his own making) threatens to unleash a scandal on the day before his war-hero brother is set to return to town after winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, George sinks to his lowest moment. In what Capra knew was a dark, existential moment, George contemplates ending his life while standing on a snowy bridge over a frozen river. The search for meaning in that scene has always been very moving. Just how much are we supposed to take before we lose hope? How much must we endure before the tissue that connects us to one another is irrevocably torn?
Clarence the Angel’s subsequent plunge into the river, knowing full well that George would abandon his own plans for ending his life to save yet another swimmer from a frozen body of water sets the final part of the film in motion. When George announces that maybe it would have been better for everyone if he had never been born at all, Clarence seizes the opportunity and grants him his wish. The nightmare that follows is what ultimately makes It’s a Wonderful Life the classic that it is. George sees the world as it would have become without him – a world where Potter-owned pool halls, dance clubs, and bars fill the streets of Pottersville, re-named with garish vulgarity in place of the postcard-quality Bedford Falls. A world where common decency has fallen by the wayside because years of economic stagnation and low wage growth have frayed the people living in the middle class. A world built on consumption and every-man-for-himself. A world where people like George’s heroic brother and community-minded wife are denied their chance to save the lives, both literally and figuratively, of those around them.
George Bailey’s nightmare was a clarion call of caution; this was where America was heading if we didn’t remember that people should always come first before money and possessions. George’s father Peter runs the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan as a community outreach to help people live in decent homes, not to prey on the innocent to gain financially. The audiences who saw It’s a Wonderful Life after having lived through the Depression and World War II already knew this in their gut and in their soul. The Greatest Generation, which survived ten years of economic ruin and liberated millions in Europe and Asia, knew in their hearts that just because someone had money didn’t mean that they had everyone’s best intentions at heart.
Isn’t it interesting that the movie has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of popularity as America has devolved into the very place Capra was warning us about? George was shown the world as it now is in many parts of this country. Broken families suffering because wage earners can’t make a decent living. Individuals coarsened by economic stagnation and isolation from one another in our communities while Fortune 500 companies obscenely pay hundreds of millions of dollars to CEOs and stock holders. Distrust of others who may not look like us. The villainization of immigrants and those who don’t practice a particular religious faith.
The brilliance of the film lies in its prescient ability to show us the map of how we got here, and proposing that the only way for us to successfully navigate away from this place is to embrace the many George Baileys in our communities and ourselves. Capra’s message is that everyone matters, every single one of us, and that it’s never too late. When George finally comprehends the gift he’s been given, his unbridled joy at living, nay EXISTING, is surpassed only by the outpouring of love, faith, and donations that prevent him from going to jail. When his brother Harry announces in his toast that George is the “richest man in town,” we know that the riches he is talking about are not those we keep in a bank or withdraw at an ATM. They are the riches of living in a community fully aware of the social contract we have with one another to not only live and let live, but to know that we are all connected. To care for our elderly and those less fortunate than us. To pay for good schools. To vote for decent and honest men and women for office. To care for one another. Maybe the reason we keep coming back to It’s a Wonderful Life is that we instinctively know we are all better off when we think of others before ourselves, and that altruism and loving one another is the only way we have to get through this thing we call life.