Unlike Easter, New Years Day or the summer solstice there’s a wealth of Christmas themed films. Ranging from the saccharine Miracle on 34th Street to the bitter Bad Santa, there’s a Christmas movie out there for every taste. So, in the run up to Christmas, we got our writers to tell us about their personal festive favourite. Our final instalment has Michael Clancy waxing lyrical about perennial Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
A film that warms the heart more convincingly than a yule log fire. A staple of the festive period, as Christmassy as binging on turkey, jolly men in red suits, and horribly depressing episodes of Eastenders, It’s a Wonderful Life truly is a holiday classic. But let’s put Christmas to one side for just a moment. It’s a Wonderful Life is fantastic based on its own merits, one of the most beloved movies of all time. Ranked 20th in the AFI’s 100 best American movies, the film is a linchpin of the classical Hollywood period and marks a high-point in the illustrious careers of its director Frank Capra and its leading man James Stewart (both men would later refer to the film as one of their favourites).
Director and star are clearly at the top of their game. For Capra the film perfectly encapsulates the basic goodness in human nature- a recurring theme in his work. For Jimmy Stewart, the multiple decade spanning narrative allows him to demonstrate his range as an actor, effortlessly transitioning from a boy in his late teens, full of youthful enthusiasm for his life ahead, into the middle aged family man with the weight of the world (or at the very least Bedford Falls) on his shoulders. He achieves this feat not through any make-up tricks or the use of prosthetics, but through subtle body language, movement, and facial expressions; it’s an acting masterclass from start to finish.
Its place as an all time celluloid classic cannot be denied. What is perhaps more surprising is how the film has become so synonymous with the festive period, when there is so little Christmas in it. It is, lest we forget, just one day in the story of a man’s (mostly wonderful) life. Everyone remembers the iconic image of George Bailey stumbling through the snow-covered streets of Bedford Falls wishing merry Christmas to the movie house and the old Building and Loan, but you have to wait 75 minutes before you even get to that fateful day. There are no references to Santa Claus and his reindeer, the cast members are far more likely to break into a rendition of ‘Buffalo Girls Won’t You Come Out Tonight’ than any Christmas carols, and you have to get through a variety of marriages, deaths, and high-school dances, as well as the Second World War before you even catch sight of a Christmas tree.
Upon it’s initial release the film wasn’t meant to be brought out in time for Christmas- it only premiered on 20th December in New York to make it eligible for the 1946 Academy Awards. It didn’t open to wider audiences until January 1947. Even Capra himself didn’t view it as Christmas movie when he made it, in the years after its (financially disappointing) first release the director seemed as surprised as anyone at the film’s growing reputation as a holiday favourite. Admittedly the final 10 minutes more than make up for lost time with a snow-dusted sing-along around the tree, but up until then it serves as more of a morality tale than a holiday genre pic. So how did this happen? How did a film with a relatively small amount of typical festive stereotypes go on to become the most Christmassy film ever?
Perhaps the reason lies with the fact that it doesn’t sledgehammer you with the Christmas spirit. With the consumerist juggernaut of the festive period kicking off earlier and earlier, with every high street shop blasting ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ as soon as Bonfire Night is over and done with, it’s nice to get a film that can get you embracing the holiday spirit, without ramming it down your chimney, stocking and throat. It’s a Wonderful Life’s relationship with Christmas isn’t the result of a great feat of marketing, but rather something that occurred organically by perfectly encapsulating all the good things the day stands for. It’s the best Christmas film ever made without even trying.
Based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, the magnificent screenplay from Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Capra smartly invokes one of the most famous tales of festive redemption, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. George is essentially the inverse of Ebenezer Scrooge, as his visit from a heavenly being shows him just how positive an impact he has had on the world around him. Rather than shown the errors of his ways, he is given a fresh appreciation for everything he has and so when we reach the tearful conclusion, instead of making amends for those he has wronged, he is able to reap the rewards of being a nice guy all his life, as the people of Bedford Falls rally around him to help with his financial woes. Being thankful for what you have? Heart-warming acts of charity? It’s beginning to look a lot more like Christmas.
It’s the ending that gets me. Every damn time. When George bursts into his old, draughty house – caring not a jot for the bank examiner, reporter and men waiting to take him to jail – and embraces his children at the top of the stairs. The relief and bemusement on Mary’s face when she returns home to find her husband there. The giddy laugh George lets out as Mary leads him into the living room. Then Uncle Billy enthusiastically enters and tips a wicker basket of pennies and notes onto the living room table. The goosebumps are raised at this point, the faintest of quivers in the upper lip can be detected. But it’s the procession that follows Uncle Billy, the familiar faces we have seen around town for the last two hours. Some give a handful of notes, some a few pennies, but everyone’s giving what they can and giving it gladly. Even the crusty old bank examiner gets in on the act. Supporting their friend in his time of need. That’s when the tears come. By the time the bell rings, indicating Clarence the Angel has finally earned his wings, the tears of joy are in full flow.
I first saw the film early into a film course at University, and have probably watched it at least once a year since. Every single time it provokes this kind of reaction from me. The fact that it managed to smash through the emotional wall put up by a too-cool-for-school student in his early twenties, and continues to do so to the world-weary, cynical adult I have since become is all part of the magic of the film.
It’s not about a seasonal act of charity, this scene could have taken place on any day of the year. It isn’t enhanced by the presence of the tree or the decorations, that isn’t what makes the film so synonymous with the holiday. It’s about the overall message of goodness the film represents. The example George constantly sets of putting duty over self, about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few or one. It is a message that is as important today as it was back then, perhaps even more so. The film is the perfect antidote for the dark and dreary days of winter. It’s so well natured it doesn’t even feel the need to tack on a scene where the villain of the piece- the spiteful, hate-filled Mr Potter- gets his comeuppance. Clearly the best revenge is living well. On a holiday that is becoming more about consumerism and John Lewis adverts, It’s a Wonderful Life reflects the true beauty of human kindness and decency. George Bailey truly is the richest man in Bedford Falls. And we are all the richer for having been a part of his wonderful life.