Ever have one of those days?
“I’ve been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society.”
“Aw, youth is wasted on the wrong people!”
“This old thing? Why, I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.”
“Well, I’m sorry – HEY!”
“Out you two pixies go, through the door or out the window!”
If the previous quotations are instantly recognizable to you as lines of dialogue from It’s A Wonderful Life, and if you cannot read the words without also hearing them and visualizing their associated characters, then you and I have something in common. We’re two among the countless devotees of the 1946 Frank Capra classic, its sights and sounds replaying within our cerebral folds after many hours of repeated exposure. There’s only one reason why anyone would voluntarily watch a movie again and again, and that is, of course, that you like it. Obvious, right? But the widespread appeal of this film is varied, and perhaps the only thing upon which all lovers of it will agree is that it is a great movie.
As for me, and in the words of Henry F. Potter, “I’ll go further than that.” I think It’s A Wonderful Life is as close as anyone has come to making a perfect narrative movie. Considered as a whole, it is a seductively watchable film, which probably explains how it rose to great popularity after falling into the public domain and being run endlessly by television stations during the holiday season. It’s hard to catch a clip of it and not watch the segment to its conclusion, and unless you have demands on your time, you’re likely to remain captivated to the very end. Every element of filmmaking has been accomplished with such skill and precision as to be nearly invisible. The entrancing result is an immersive experience that manipulates us so subtly and gently that we willing accept it.
It’s A Wonderful Life has its share of corny sentimentality and syrupy sweetness. In fact, if that aspect were taken out of context and assembled into a trailer that excluded all else, I would interpret such a promotion as a warning to stay away. Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings? Zuzu’s petals? Two hours of that would make anybody gag. But so would a sweetened drink with its liquid substance removed. Like sugar in your tea or cream in your coffee, these moments are an essential ingredient to balance the overall flavor. They are used sparingly and in such an artful equilibrium with everything else that not only do we not mind the hokiness, we find it endearing. Besides, that sweetness is a necessary counterbalance to the dark and bitter side of the movie.
George Bailey is a man whose ambitions have been deferred by circumstance, and as the years go by, he understands that his childhood dreams of international exploration and adventure will never be realized. He sees a world of opportunity shrink to the dully familiar confines of his hometown. Faithful to his family and his job at the building and loan founded by his late father, George is prone to occasional flashes of bitterness when confronted with this truth. He kicks the sticking door of his aging automobile and gets angry at the banister post that is forever coming loose in his hand, while the Sam Wainwrights of the world are off leading glamorous lives and making more money than they could ever spend. Yet it is clear that George is a decent man who loves and appreciates his family and friends, and he has begun to accept his modest hometown lifestyle.
Then a financial crisis threatens to destroy both George’s business and his home life, and we see George at his worst. Agonizing over a potential separation from his wife and children due to his likely arrest, angry about a life of responsible sacrifice that is about to come to ruin, and still harboring a smoldering resentment from his thwarted ambitions, George unleashes the full fury of his disappointment on the cheerful holiday display in his living room. When his family stare at him in speechless terror following the uncharacteristic outburst, a dangerous line of reasoning poisons George’s mind with the thought that he is no longer useful to his family. He ends up on a snowy bridge contemplating suicide.
And yet, this is far from the darkest part of the movie. The Pottersville sequence features George’s chilling encounters with friends and family in a dreary alternate reality. Beloved pharmacist Mr. Gower is a reviled and humiliated drunkard. The formerly affable cab driver Ernie regards George with grim suspicion. Most disturbing of all is George’s own mother, whose transformation into a sneering and distrustful boardinghouse owner is so jarring that it threatens her son’s sanity; George’s wide-eyed reaction is one of the great moments in cinema.
Speaking of great moments, It’s A Wonderful Life brims over with numerous small masterpieces of writing, performance, and direction, each of which would be the highlight of a lesser film. Nearly every member of the perfectly cast ensemble gets the opportunity to shine, none more so than leading man Jimmy Stewart. He is riveting and believable from beginning to end, but my favorite part of his performance comes midway through the picture. George has dutifully run the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan for four years while waiting for his younger brother, Harry, to graduate from college and take over, thus freeing George to pursue his own higher education. But Harry returns newly married with excellent prospects for promising employment by his father-in-law. George learns about both the marriage and his brother’s opportunity only when he meets Harry at the train station, and immediately the noble course of action is soberly clear to him. In a fantastic close-up tracking shot, Stewart wordlessly reveals George’s thoughts as we see his face transform from consternation to a polite smile of welcome for his new sister-in-law.
Donna Reed grabs her share of the spotlight as love interest Mary Hatch. Her credibility as a wife and mother of four is all the more remarkable considering the fact that the young actress was barely an adult at the time of filming (or, as George might observe, “Eighteen?!”). The chemistry between Reed and Stewart is delightful. There is the famous “first kiss” scene, certainly, but an engaging playfulness pervades their interactions. The pair perfectly play a shot in which a sullen George reluctantly enters the Hatch home to the delight of lovestruck Mary. She has put on her finest for the occasion and stands in the doorway looking as radiantly beautiful as any woman could. Even George, nursing his foul mood, cannot ignore it.
“Where’d you get that dress?” he mutters.
“Do you like it?” responds Mary enthusiastically.
“S’alright,” deadpans George.
The supporting players make their own memorable contributions, with Lionel Barrymore creating the iconic face of capitalistic greed for his relentlessly predatory Mr. Potter. Thomas Mitchell’s bumbling Uncle Billy is lovably convivial when away from the family business and convincingly less than astute when working within it. Henry Travers manages to pull off the greatest acting trick of the film with his work as the angel Clarence, endowing his supernatural character with a charmingly childlike (and yet, not at all annoying) simplicity.
So rich is It’s A Wonderful Life that some of its best lines are delivered by bit characters. Dick Elliott’s cantankerous Man On Porch (“Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?!”), J. Farrell MacDonald’s incensed House Owner (“Now look what you did! My great grandfather planted that tree!”), and the incomparable Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer (of Little Rascals fame) as a spurned dance-floor bore (“Now to get back to my story, see…”) are fine examples of making the most out of a few seconds of screen time.
None of the performances would amount to much, however, were it not for a strong narrative that resonates with our own experiences. More than sixty years after its release, It’s A Wonderful Life remains relevant to its audience. Most of us have known, at least to some degree, the disappointment of seeing our lives fall short of our greatest expectations. Somewhere along the line, we step away from the party long enough to hear our own metaphorical train whistle, and we recognize our most ambitious fantasies as unattainable illusions. Then we realize that we were never alone in our struggle, and we become profoundly grateful for the family and friends who have been there all along.
Ultimately, It’s A Wonderful Life represents the triumph of gratitude over ambition. In George Bailey’s conflict we see our own battles with life’s troublesome circumstances, and in his thankfulness we ponder our unique good fortune. And if we are especially fortunate, we, too, know that our best moments have been of immeasurable worth to others.