This is a five-part series of reviews of classic live-action Christmas films that are on my must-watch list every holiday season.
Merry Christmas, everyone! And what better way to celebrate than by remembering what is probably the most popular Christmas movie ever made: It’s a Wonderful Life. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny it endures as few films have. Once upon a time, it was on some TV channel somewhere almost every day between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Now it’s been limited to one network once a season, like regular old Christmas movies, but fondness for this film lives on.
I waxed poetic yesterday about Cary Grant, but my love for James Stewart, who plays main character George Bailey, runs just as deep. Jimmy isn’t as devistatingly handsome as Cary, that’s for sure, but Jimmy’s the sort you want as a companion, spending you life getting to know each other. George Bailey is considered by many to be his signature role, and fresh from a stint in the military during WWII, Jimmy was at the top of his game. So was the lovely Donna Reed, who plays George’s wife Mary, and director Frank Capra, already known for inspiring films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (which also starred Jimmy Stewart).
George Bailey wants to go places, literally and figuratively, but growing up in the small, sleepy town of Bedford Falls in the early decades of the 20th century, his dreams are always one step away from coming true. He works for four years for his father’s Building and Loan, an early credit union that cuts borrowers more slack than the local bank owned by the wealthy, heartless Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). When it’s supposed to be his younger brother Harry’s turn to take over the job so George can go to college and travel, Harry brings home a wife who wants him to take a job at her father’s company. George stays on at the Building and Loan through his father’s death, his own marriage to childhood sweetheart Mary, and the Great Depression that threatens to do them in. His forgetful Uncle Billy falls into a scheme of Potter’s that leaves the Building and Loan broke on Christmas Eve and George considers ending his life, which he feels hasn’t amounted to much anyway. At the last minute, an angel appears and gives George a rare gift–the chance to see his impact on the world by looking at what the lives of his loved ones would be like if he’d never been born.
Like Miracle on 34th Street, this is another all-around good movie. Very little of it is actually set at Christmas, just the frame and the last third or so. Instead, it follows the life of one ordinary man and all its major milestones. The characters aren’t just quirky small-town stereotypes, but real people who impact each other as they grow and change.
Though the last twenty minutes or so, when George is looking at the world without him in it, has been spoofed a million times, I love this film because of its depiction of small-town life in the early 20th century. I’ve borrowed many images from it as I crafted my own WWII-era town, from the drugstore soda fountain to the home furnishings. It also looks candidly at the issue of providing for a family in economically turbulant times, including homebuying, the development of suburbs and subdivisions, and the hassles of getting a mortgage. We watched it just after buying our first house last year, and the financially-related plot lines came alive to me as never before. The talk of bank runs and foreclosures couldn’t be more timely, even if houses cost more like $5000 instead of $200,000.
And last but not least, the last scene always makes me tear up, even though I know it’s coming. Who doesn’t want to know they have made such a difference in the lives of others? That is love, and that is Christmas. It is wonderful indeed.