Some movies just make you go Awww. You end up forgetting real life and start appreciating the wonder of reel-life. Frank Capra’s epic, It’s a Wonderful Life, is one such movie.
Well reputed for its repeat value as a feel good Christmas drama, it holds a television record during holiday season for all the wrong reasons. A copyright booboo consequently enabled television stations to endless hours of free screening on TV. But, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Frank Capra’s melodrama as the failure to renew its copyright in 1975 arced as the sole reason It’s a Wonderful Life has become the quintessential Christmas carol. Not surprising at all, It’s a Wonderful Life is a sweetie that’s sappy and splendid – taking you to the land of fairytales again.
Capra had already won three Oscars by the time he co-wrote, directed, and produced It’s a Wonderful Life. Sadly, the movie bombed at the box-office. It was celebrated in the Oscars though—receiving five nominations, winning only one. A shame, but considering it clashed with William Wyler’s Best Years of our Lives, it’s not surprising, a bit saddening. Still the movie ranks today as one of the greatest films made—a personal favorite of Frank Capra and James Stewart, who stars in this sentimental drama as George Bailey.
The movie spans 26 years starting 1919 when George was merely 12 years young and ending at around 1945, with George now happy and merry at 38. Incidentally, that was Stewart’s real age when he came about doing It’s a Wonderful Life. Considering that he plays an 18-year-old here, it’s amazing how Stewart doesn’t look that old for his role as young and enthusiastic, George Bailey. His youthfulness and enthusiasm never really fades—a trait that keeps George going despite his rough life amidst tough times. As they say, what a time to be alive!
For George and his virtuous wife, Mary Bailey (played by the charming, Donna Reed), this period starting from George’s early part-time work at a Pharmacist’s until his responsibilities as the Chairperson of Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association—becomes a romantic period that sees them bloom, whither, and shine again making a jolly family of six. In these 26 years, they grow to cherish their smalltime Bedford Falls turning this small town into a haven. George spends his time serving his hometown, and keeping it off the sordid hands of slumlord, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) – saving the day many times for the hardworking and oppressed citizens of Bedford Falls.
Yet, one has to pose the question, what happens when this local messiah in flesh and blood faces trouble and finds himself in the corner? How can he go on protecting his fellas when he, himself, is done and dusted? That’s the catch, but have no fear friends for AS2, Angel Second Class, passionate admirer of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is here to save the day. His name is Clarence Odbody, played with jest by Henry Travers.
Clarence’s favorite novel, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer knits a mawkish metaphor in Wonderful Life. Like Tom, George’s overriding guilt of saving the day and undoing the wrong forms the basis and very like Tom and his pal, Huck, George is also an adventurer at heart wanting to visit Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean. Of course, this remains unfulfilled for he has to grow up at a young age and takeover as the Chairman of his father and uncle’s association. Not to let his people down and to ensure that Potter is kept at hand’s reach, George reluctantly agrees and once he does, his adventures only begin within the confines of this small town.
It’s a Wonderful Life might be longer than it appears for today’s viewers. At over 2 hours, the movie is slow taking its time as it skims over 26 years. Not to say it’s boring, which it isn’t, it can feel a bit tedious at times, but the splendor we see on screen, Capra’s tight direction, and the droll life and times of the Bailey couple keep it refreshing and amusing. It’s one of those movies you’d enjoy in a cold night wrapped around warm blankets with your family, which is also why It’s a Wonderful Life has become a nostalgic fair.
For people who’ve grown up reading and watching fairytales, it’s a wonderful throwback to those times, and only augments one’s deep-rooted desire for fantasy, goodness, and the celebration that’s life. And for Capra, celebration it was. After returning from his time away during the Second World War, Capra envisioned a movie that would celebrate life amidst the gory world he’d witnessed. James Stewart was on the same boat. Together, they created magic – delivering a movie that has become reminiscent with celebration and the joy of living. It’s a mad, mad, mad world—and Capra uses his wit and humor to tell a story of innate divinity behind the madness that appears.
Under the mask of fantasy though, Capra uses this film to shed light on the manipulation of proprietors, capitalistic powers, and the chi of commercialization. He throws light on all these issues loosely, but doesn’t go into details as Wonderful Life isn’t really about life’s negativity, it’s about optimism, about human endeavor, and the value of individual lives. What’s important for Capra is to put these into effect and make this world one wonderful place – appreciating the wonder of life.
When George finds himself in the all-new Bedford thanks to Clarence, the movie takes a sharp noir turn, with low-key lighting, degenerative locales, and power-hungry maniacs ravaging the city, now renamed Pottersville. In the scene when the never-born, never-here George Bailey visits his dilapidated house, Capra throws sharp shadows in George’s face, and creates a depleted environment. Even if it’s for a tiny portion of the movie, we get a feel of a genuine film noir and the sad part – it could be the actual representation of an increasingly commercial America in the post-war scenario.
Nonetheless, we don’t suffer too much in such a noir-ish setting as Capra brings us right back into his fantasy. Perhaps he was clinging on to those values that made him the Frank Capra, and perhaps that’s why we all love him and his movies.
Looking back, It’s a Wonderful Life is the zenith’s of Capra’s career. How ironic that it led to his downfall, whilst being perhaps his best effort and one of the most glorious films ever made. Capra went on to direct five more movies after Wonderful Life. While they’re impressive in their own ways, none match the joie de vivre of It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a Wonderful Life is heart-warming. Filled with Capra-ian ebullience, it highlights all the wonderful aspects of life, love, and the world. There may be few bad apples, but not all apples are the same. One just needs to realize the goodness in people, and strive to accept life a celebratory journey than a power-driven game. Maybe a bit too utopian, but a man (read person) doesn’t get into a situation like this always, right?
I’ll leave you with a quote from Capra when asked about the legacy of the movie:
“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
Ah, it is a wonderful life.