Retro Review: It’s A Wonderful Life

Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures

Director: Frank Capra

Writers: Frank Capra, Jo Swerling, Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich

Composer: Dimitri Tiomkin

Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore

Genre: Comedy/Drama/Fantasy

Rating: PG

Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life has grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas films of all time. It didn’t start that way. After a tumultuous premiere, the film disappeared for decades before becoming a staple of regular holiday viewership. Originally, the film was an underperforming box office flop that had emerged from a moment of incredible personal and spiritual pain from following the lives of two men who were forced to live through one of the most horrifying conflicts in world history.

Content Guide

Violence: Some punching and slapping. A character’s lip bleeds and a character’s ear bleeds. A character almost accidentally poisons a child and in an alternate reality, he actually does. Talk about war and mass murder of soldiers, but nothing is shown. In an alternate reality, a nine-year-old child drowns.

Language/Crude Humor: No profanity. Some curse substitutes like gosh.

Sexual Content: A woman jokes to her mother that a suitor is “making violent love to me” and a woman accidentally loses her robe walking behind a bush. Nothing is shown.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters casually drink and get drunk to the point of staggering and slurred speech. Several characters smoke and chew on cigars.

Spiritual Content: Three angels send a guardian angel to help save the life of a suicidal man.

Other Negative Themes: None.

Positive Content: Positive portrayals of self-sacrifice, self-worth, hard work, and community.

It’s A Wonderful Life came about at one of the darkest moments of director Frank Capra’s and star Jimmy Stewart’s lives. In the 1930s Capra had built a filmmaking legacy around a series of critically acclaimed screwball comedies. It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe and You Can’t Take it With You established him as one of the great directors of his age. He was a man who kept company with many of the greatest artists and entertainers of the time. At the height of his success, he even gained high ranking positions in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Screenwriters Guild, and the Directors Guild of America. Jimmy Stewart similarly had developed a strong career working in the studio system on films like The Philadelphia Story and Capra’s own You Can’t Take It With You. In 1939 the two of them collaborated on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Capra was a man who loved his country but he wasn’t afraid to question it when it failed. The film in question Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, headlined brilliantly by Jimmy Stewart as the naive and kind-hearted Jefferson Smith, detailed the travails, tribulations and sheer corruption behind the vail of Washington DC’s political class. Despite some controversy from politicians who considered the film to be defamatory, the film’s true strength came in 1942 at the height of the German occupation in France. When the German government officially banned American films in French movie theaters, a large number of theaters chose Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as the last film to show before the ban took effect. One theater is said to have played the film nonstop for a month.

Just as Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart’s art became a point of contention, both of these men moved to join the war effort. Capra joined the military as a filmmaker and produced the famous Why We Fight propaganda series to help the war effort on the home front. Stewart, on the other hand, forwent the government preferred deferment for celebrities and served the duration of the war as the head of a bomber squadron on the western front of Europe. Stewart returned from the war in 1945 with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and without a clear direction of what to do with his life. Desperate for a job, Stewart found himself on the phone one day in 1946 with his former director who offered him the lead in his first post-WWII feature film. Stewart found the role silly but gladly accepted the role from an old friend.

That film, It’s A Wonderful Life, speaks to the change that both of these artists faced after years of conflict. Stewart gives one of the rawest and most emotional performances of his long and storied career. The themes of self-sacrifice and selflessness that pervaded 1940s filmmaking in movies like Casablanca and Now Voyager reappear once again set against a more contemporary setting. Bedford Falls isn’t Casablanca, Morocco. That, of course, is the point of the film.

Our hero George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) fancies himself to be an architect, a world traveler, an intellectual, and a war hero not unlike people like Rick Blaine from Casablanca. He isn’t these things. He’s a man who lives in a small town, with a difficult job who got married and had kids. At many points in his life, he could’ve escaped into something fantastical and exciting, but he chose to do the difficult thing and stay in Bedford Falls to help people who needed him. To make matters worse, his acts of goodness are undercut by dirty business dealings and he is put in a position where he could end up in jail through no fault of his own. Life could not have possibly pushed George Bailey down into a worse situation.

Just at it’s bleakest moment, at the moment he decides to end it all, he finds himself in the presence of his literal guardian angel. The Lord himself has sent his servant to show George Bailey the truth of his life. In an alternate timeline, we see the version of Bedford Falls that could have existed if George Bailly had never been born. Without his acts of kindness and sacrifice, the town and even parts of the world outside have become a near-literal hell on earth. The kind people of Bedford Falls have dissolved into degenerate, mean-spirited souls living in a corrupt world. The message is clear, the world is only a good place if good people live in it. The world is a better place because George Bailey lived in it. Both Capra and Stewart had seen a world without good people. Much like the rest of their generation, they were both grateful the good guys had defeated that world.

Technically speaking the film stands as an excellent piece of the contemporary golden age filmmaking. It’s a Wonderful Life’s visual style drowns in a dreamy fantasy that matches the story’s deeply sentimental tone. The camera photographs Bedford Falls as a hazy dreamscape. In its full-screen aspect ratio, we see it as a dream but also one with a hauntingly narrow perspective. It’s a dream to us, but to George Bailey it’s a quiet nightmare that only exists to make him miserable.

The soundtrack similarly remains famous to this day. The orchestra pieces aren’t as memorable but the most emotional moments of the film near the end are frequently scored to christmas songs that have gone on to transcend the film in many ways. The final recitation of Auld Lang Syne in the final scene rings true as a triumphant moment of joy and love when George Bailey fully comes to understand his place in his hometown.

The story rings true with much of the same resonance of The Book of Job or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a story about a person at the lowest person in their life coming to find cosmological significance in his place in the world and coming away stronger from it. For our lead and director respectively, this is very much the story that both of them needed to tell at the moment that they came home from war. Late in his life in an interview, Jimmy Stewart would go on to say that it would represent his favorite performance of his career.

For Frank Capra, It’s A Wonderful Life represented the final masterpiece of a storied career. The film lost out on five of its six Oscar nominations and only won for Technical Achievement. Most of the Oscar wins that year went to William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Capra would go on to direct an additional nine films, none of which would become highly memorable in the way his early films did. Stewart on the other hand, who similarly lost out on his best actor nomination, would go on to experience a career revitalization. His post-war career working on films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Harvey, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Spirit of St. Louis, The Shootist, and Anatomy of a Murder afforded him the opportunity to work among the greatest directors of the age like Alfred Hitchcock, Don Siegel, Cecil B. DeMille, Billy Wilder, and John Ford. His performances, however, shifted from the light-hearted romps of his youth to a more serious, world-wearily persona that carried the weight of his experiences.

It’s a Wonderful Life fell into obscurity until it transferred into the public domain where it became regular viewing for TV channels to fill time slots with during the holidays. With time and reevaluation, its status as a masterpiece fully came to be known. In the end, both Capra and Stewart lost something to their experiences in the war. In spite of this, both of would ultimately succeed in giving the world more than they could ever have imagined with this touching story.

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The Bottom Line

 

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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