It’s A Wonderful Life by Michael Newton

BFI Film Classics Bloomsbury 2023



Christmas is coming and in many parts of the world Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life will be screened in cinemas and on television.  This iconic 1946 Hollywood film is now a cultural phenomenon that’s come to define Christmas goodwill to your neighbour and individual self renewal.  The film blends comedy, tragedy, romance and fairy tale within its immediate post WW2 realism: a complex Americana eventually ‘resolved’ by the heady artifice of heavenly fantasy.

Of course It’s a Wonderful Life is our modern universal version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  For over four fifths of the film we are presented with a dark and pessimistic vision of life being constantly interrupted and deflected by the warm comedic dramas of a small American town.  The dramatic seam, running through the film’s humanism, is a depressing depiction of benevolent capitalist George Bailey (James Stewart) whose sense of failure and unrealised ambition leads him to attempt suicide.  Capra’s generous empathy and humour, towards the inhabitants of his imagined Bedford Falls, masks with charm, but can’t quite dispel the lanky and haunted figure of Bailey, his conflicted hero, with his nagging sense of disappointment, despair and anguish – so well realised in James Stewart’s magnificent performance.

What Capra boldly does in It’s a Wonderful Life is to introduce the supernatural, in the form of an eccentric angel, who saves George from suicide and does so by showing him how life would have been if he’d never been born.  And this nightmare sequence, where Bedford Falls has become the nakedly capitalistic Pottersville (named after the town’s much bigger capitalist and screen villain Mr. Potter played by Lionel Barrymore) is effectively disturbing.

Critics have accused Capra of descending into an unnecessary whimsy by introducing an angel helper.  But I agree with Michael Newton’s opinion in his compelling BFI Film Classic that Clarence the angel makes sense if we see him, through Capra’s eyes, as a holy fool.  Newton’s book balances the arguments of both Capra’s admirers and detractors, for childlike wish fulfilment or not, the film’s supernatural solution works because Capra, through his assured direction, makes us drop our adult cynicism and believe in screen magic.  And after returning to a reality where George was born he is now able to comprehend how other people might see him and escape from his own ego’s fixation, veering into self pity, with failure.

Capra allows us to feel and unashamedly shed a tear at the joyful end of It’s a Wonderful Life.  “Capra believed in feeling: ‘Sentiment is deep down in the innards of all of us.  We love sentiment; we live on it.  Otherwise we’d be scratching each other’s eyes out…’  Capra does not look down on his audience or condescend to them.  He evokes feeling and finds simple beauty, because it was his deepest belief that everyone in the audience responds to feeling, values that beauty.”

The great upsurge of joy in It’s a Wonderful Life is genuinely heartfelt yet not manipulative.  But will things remain that way?  Don’t forget that the rapacious Mr. Potter doesn’t get his comeuppance.  He’s left outside of the Christmas celebrations, maybe still plotting to financially crush George Bailey? And the chilling question I’m left with, after the nightmare Pottersville ride, a fantasy at times pushed into a horror film (Those anguished and horror stricken huge close ups of James Stewart’s face) is will the community’s happiness continue after Christmas to become permanent?

For the film’s nightmare, now revealing the inhabitants of Bedford Falls, as selfish and uncaring, hints at a thinly disguised repression of their own disappointments and dark side.  A bitter reality that’s still open to be exploited by the Potters of this world.  Mammon will bite us all.  A world were George Bailey, an essentially good hearted guy, has to remain vigilant against capitalist corruption and incompetence (The bank’s Uncle Billy, Thomas Mitchell, ineptly losing the bank’s $8000) and also hold on to the moral lessons of his own re-birth.

It’s a Wonderful Life is contradictory – both pessimistic and optimistic.  Politically it’s an open field.  As Newton says the film’s been interpreted as being, “communist, Jeffersonian or moderately Republican.”  And Newton is alert to the film’s ambivalence and ambiguity.  “The complexity of the film cannot be denied: indeed it truly is due to its unstable energies that it lives as one of the greatest American films.”

I’d definitely concur with Michael Newton’s “unstable energies.”  They’re energies that give different pleasures and differing arguments to all manner of viewers.  This dark, often noirish, film about the American dream is a classic.  Seventy seven years on It’s a Wonderful Life still retains its power as a Christmas treat and Christmas shock.  And Newton’s seriously engaging and beautifully researched book keeps both those thoughts firmly in mind.

Alan Price©2023