By Brian Smith
I saw your eyes roll! You saw that title and said, “Wow you’re really stepping out on a limb, Smith. Blogging about It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas time. Sooooo risky.” Well, I’m here to tell you why It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t just one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, it’s one of the greatest films of all time. There are reasons that certain films become iconic and other films are forgotten. It’s a Wonderful Life is iconic because it is great; which begs the question: what makes it great? Take another look at this film. Look at it critically and break it down to small components and you’ll see a film that was meticulously crafted, a story that resonates because it was so well developed, and acting that brought us into synch with the characters. We become a part of the characters’ lives.
Frank Capra directed this film, and he was one of the top five directors of the first half of the 20th Century, a master story teller. It’s a Wonderful Life has the classic setup of pitting what the main character wants against what he needs.
In the first act of the movie, we meet George Bailey as a boy yearning to escape the shackles of his small birth town so that he can explore the world. The adult George dreams of building 100-story skyscrapers and mile-long bridges; all the while aware his dreams are not likely to be realized in the small bubble that is Bedford Falls. College is his ticket to glory. However, unable to afford college right out of high school, he goes to work for his father at the Bailey Building and Loan in order to save money for school. His father teaches him that helping people is its own reward, especially when it comes to helping people attain their own home so they don’t have to live in the squalor of the slums owned by Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the richest and meanest man in town. George however, finds the job tedious and can’t wait to get away. Just as it seems his time has come; his father dies suddenly. The Building and Loan’s Board of Directors will only keep the company going if George takes over. Resigned, George acquiesces and sends his brother Harry to college with the money he had saved, and waits four more years. When Harry does come back and George is ready to finally hand off the reigns to him, Harry unexpectedly announces that he’s married. Harry’s new wife tells George that her father has offered Harry a promising job. The second act begins with us learning that George will never be able to leave Bedford Falls.
The art of the script is that we realize staying in Bedford Falls is exactly the right thing for George; he just doesn’t know it yet. Not everything goes sour for George during these years. He marries local girl Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who has dreamed of marrying George since she was a little girl. George has to fight incredibly hard to keep the Building and Load afloat. Although aware he’s doing good things for the townsfolk, he’s also struggling with the fact that he’s not making good money. He drives a junky car, and he can’t afford to buy nice things for his wife. When his childhood friend Sam Wainwright shows up in a big fancy car and invites him to go on a trip to Florida that George couldn’t possibly afford, we see the pain that it causes him, and we also see a not-so-subtle hint of regret. This is a man who believes that he’s more than he’s become because he can’t see the greatness in the little things that he’s doing.
Frank Capra and his co-writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett provided George with depth by giving him a couple of subtle and important flaws. They made him envious of the outside world and they took away his ability to see the good things that were right in front of him. George Bailey wants to be a great and important person, and he mistakenly thinks that in order to do that, he has to go into the great big world and do great and important things. He doesn’t see that for the people of Bedford Falls, that’s exactly what he is already doing. The third act of the story ends up showing him that lesson just as it shows us.
In fact, it is this specific moment of crisis that is one of the strongest and most emotional moments of this or any other film. After Uncle Billy has lost $8,000 of company money and it looks as though George will lose everything and go to jail, he goes home and falls apart. There is an excellent cinematic technique that Capra uses to depict George losing control of himself from stress: George’s older daughter Jane is practicing Hark, The Herald Angels Sing on the piano, and the same four bars are heard over and over again to the point of being torturous – for us and for George! Finally George snaps and yells at all of his children, then sees a model of the mile-long bridge that he never got the opportunity to build. He is overcome with rage. He kicks the model over and trashes the room in front of his shocked family. All Mary can do is kick him out of the house, and a few minutes later Potter tells him that he’s worth more dead than alive.
By this time we care so deeply for George and have come to like him so very much that we don’t want to see him in this much pain. We feel his pain. This is a man who has lost everything and is ready to kill himself, when Clarence, his guardian angel, intervenes. Up to this point in the film Capra has developed a textbook-worthy story and equally worthy characters in which the audience simply can’t help but be emotionally attached in the struggles of this fine man.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a film that many people have seen many times, but should be looked at with a fresh eye. To a degree it certainly has become cliché, but looking at it purely as a well-fashioned and well-crafted film is still possible. It’s a Wonderful Life has an amazing script and is impeccably directed. The acting was no less stellar. Jimmy Stewart’s low-key yet passionate portrayal of Everyman earned him an Oscar nod. (Ronald Coleman won for “A Double Life”, even over Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”) All of the actors, particularly Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore gave sterling performances in It’s a Wonderful Life, but Stewart might have given the best performance of his career, and considering that he’s one of the greatest and most iconic actors of the 20th Century, that is certainly saying something. Perhaps it has become stale to you. Perhaps you think that there isn’t anything new in it for you. However, I would suggest watching this film after the holidays. Don’t watch it as a Christmas movie. Just watch it for the fine cinematic experience that it is, and you may come away with a new appreciation for what is really one of the great films of all time.
Classic Film Correspondent
Brian has been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for companies such as Walden Media and Scott Free Films. Scripts and books that Brian has read and covered include Twilight,Touristas, Nim’s Island, Hotel for Dogs, and Inkheart. Brian has worked in the entertainment industry since 1999, and he has credits on 23 films and television series for Disney, Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation.
Brian is a life-long fan of good stories and he’s spent years studying the techniques and principles of good story telling. He believes that great cinema and great story telling go hand-in-hand. He studied animation and screenwriting at the University of Southern California, receiving an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1999. With that knowledge and his appreciation of good stories, Brian gets real satisfaction in helping writers get the most out of their stories through their screenplays.