I was late to the party. Finally, in December 2018 (my 43rd year on this planet) I got around to watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Perhaps you think that I have been living under a rock for most of my life and in many ways you might be able to make a valid argument. But sometimes these movies just slip through the cracks, even to someone like myself who has a degree in film and considers themselves a cinephile.
There was no ideological reason to not see this movie nor had I made any focused effort to actively avoid it. Over the years I think that I have seen many/most of the requisite holiday classics. From childhood I grew up with the winter standards from my era like A Christmas Story, A Muppet Family Christmas, and even Scrooged as I became a teen. There were the perennial classics like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (and for fucks sake why do they keep remaking it?), A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and of course the stop-motion Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. But Frank Capra’s classic always seemed to elude me.
As with most of these films from another era, I have to qualify what I am watching with the recognition that culture has changed quite a bit from the over-70 years from which it was released. People sure smoked a lot, back then. I’ll also have to give a pass to the lone character of color (Lillian Randolph) who portrayed, unsurprisingly for the period, a maid. I will also forgive 38-year-old Jimmy Stewart looking virtually identical when playing his character, George Bailey, from ages 21-38. Kinda weird, Jimmy, when you are hitting on Donna Reed, almost a decade-and-a-half younger than you. Different times, I guess. I’ll let it slide.
The film itself holds up surprisingly well. It is funny. Jimmy Stewart is fantastically engaging. The world that Capra creates is an endearing one. The small town values are exemplified by George’s interactions with the various denizens of Bedford Falls, New York. He is pals with everyone from cops to cabbies, the well-to-do, and as Paul Simon might describe them: the ragged people too. In time-jump after time-jump George becomes almost Lot-esque. He forsakes his own dreams multiple times for the sake of his town and his family. He is tested again and again, never wavering in faith in his fellow Bedford Falls brethren. That is until the last segment where George Bailey has his true crisis of faith and contemplates ending it all in the cold waters of a river on Christmas Eve. From here, we finally get to meet the pre-winged angel Clarence for a peek of what Bedford Falls would have looked like sans George Bailey. But hell, you all know all of this. You have seen It’s a Wonderful Life before because you haven’t been raised under rocks.
The reasons why this films holds up have been discussed quite thoroughly and definitely more articulately than anything I could bring to the topic. I do, however, think that 2018 was a relevant time to watch it. Film legend Lionel Barrymore plays the films antagonist: the miserly Henry Potter. Henry is rich, humorless, and an amoral asshole. Through the modern lens, one could say he is Trumpian. He exhibits extreme narcissism which is epitomized through the George-less reality where he has taken over Bedford Falls and renamed it Pottersville. Some personalities have to see their names everywhere for self-aggrandizement. While we never see the true fate of Mr. Potter, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize how the end of this morally bankrupt person will be. George will eventually get old and spend the remaining years of his life surrounded by family and loved ones. Potter will shrivel and wither like a vampire starved of blood. I will be honest, though. I did see the appeal of Pottersville. It’s main-street alight with bars and nightlife. Legitimate characters with all of their seedy dealings and interesting stories. Sounds like my average night on Colfax.
I finally checked this one off of the list. I finally free myself of the derision of not having seen this Christmas staple, a movie that has endured for the last seven decades. And this is a film that I am glad to have seen. There are certain sensibilities, a certain aesthetic and idealism that Capra brought to the screen, emulated for generations, but that I don’t think exists in todays cinema. Be that as it may, It’s a Wonderful Life can still offer optimism and I hope it does so for at least the next 70 years.