Christmas Movies: It’s a Wonderful Life, Starring Jimmie Stewart

Many people associate “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Christmas, which is not surprising. Christian themes feature prominently in Capra’s work. In “Meet John Doe” (1941), the protagonist (Gary Cooper) threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. Screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett developed the idea for “Wonderful Life” from a Christmas card; in “Mr. Deeds,” the hero is a poet of greeting cards and the narrative concludes on Christmas Eve.

TV contributed to this movie’s visibility by showing it every Christmas. In his film, Capra deals with a universal fantasy: how would life look to a person if he hadn’t been born. George Bailey (Stewart), a deeply depressed man, wishes he had never been born. It takes a guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), to show him what the world would be like if his wish had been fulfilled. Appalled by what he sees, he regains faith in his life.

Throughout his life, George wishes “to shake off the dust of this crummy little town.” He wants to do big things, explore the world, build skyscrapers and bridges. “I couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of my life in a shabby little office,” he tells his father, “This business is nickels and dimes. Spending all the rest of your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe–I’d go crazy.” Ironically, George ends up actualizing his worst fears, running his father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan Company, and never setting a foot outside town. And he lives in a shabby house, with its knob falling whenever he climbs the stairs, signaling that George, like the knob, is falling apart.

Similarly to John Doe, the desperate George sees no other way out but to commit suicide, drown himself in the river. “I’m not a praying man,” confesses George to God, “but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way.”

A Christian morality play about the loss and renewal of faith, the sight of George crying, “I’m at the end of my rope,” is heartbreaking. It is only by negating what he possesses that George is able to reassess the value and meaning of his life. But how reassuring is this message if it takes the intervention of Divinity (God himself) to prevent George from terminating his life. In “Mr. Deeds,” it was at least human intervention, his encounter with a starving farmer that rescued the hero. Moreover, unlike “Mr. Deeds” or “Meet John Doe,” “Wonderful Life” differs from other Capra movies in its utter lack of humor, a possible indication of George’s deep-seated despair.

George is contrasted with two young men, his brother Harry and his schoolmate Sam Wainwright. George wants to go to war, but is exempted for medical reasons: his hearing is impaired as a result of jumping into the river to save his brother from drowning. Harry distinguishes himself as a navy flyer and comes back as a war hero, decorated with a Congressional Medal.

Both Harry and Sam represent the risk, adventurism, and allure of the “outside” world. Sam’s ambitions take him out of town, though the film looks down at industrial products, particularly plastic, a symbol of sterility and lack of authenticity. Sam’s rewards are materialistic (money, power, prestige) whereas George’s are spiritualistic (helping poor people who can’t get loans from a bank).

Preaching for self-sacrifice, the movie documents the heavy price George has paid in his life. As a child, he jumped into the icy river to save his brother and subsequently lost his hearing in one ear. He also saved a patient’s life, when he noticed that Mr. Gower inadvertently filled a prescription with poison, but the pharmacist beats him where it hurts most, at his ear.

The weakest conception of character is that of Potter, a villain right out of Dickens’s books, described as “the richest and meanest man in the country.” Evil incarnate, Potter is not only physically crippled (sitting on a wheelchair) but emotionally too. Wonderful Life may possibly be the only small-town film in which the villain is not punished for his crimes. At the bank, Uncle Billy’s absentmindedly leaves an envelope with 8,000 dollars in a newspaper, which falls too conveniently into Potter’s hands.

The conflict between good and evil is drawn too schematically: Potter has no redeeming qualities, except for his perceptiveness. Still, he is the only person who really understands George’s frustrations. “Now if this young man of 28 was a common, ordinary yokel,” says Potter, “I’d say he was doing fine.” But George is not a common, “ordinary yokel, he is an intelligent, smart, and ambitious young man who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do.” Potter describes George as a man “who has been dying to get out of his own ever since he was born,” but instead, “he has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he’s trapped into frittering his life away, playing housemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters.”

Capra celebrates the heroism in living an ordinary life. George is meant to be an ordinary guy who becomes extraordinary in the most ordinary circumstances. George begins as a reluctant insider and ends as a willing insider: Throughout the film, his strongest wish is to become an outsider, literally and figuratively. If he can’t leave town, he should not get involved in other people’s problems. But the film rules out detachment or partial involvement, preaching instead impartial belongingness and total commitment to the community. Still, more than other small-town heroes, George is not a master of his fate: The film stresses the role of accidents and unanticipated events over which he has little, or no, control.

“Wonderful Life” also urges its viewers to accept their lives for what they are, to make the most out of mundane circumstances–optimistic passivity rather than aggressive activism. The reconciliation to domesticity (the sanctity of the nuclear family) and restoration of order may have diminished George’s frustrations, but they can never make them altogether disappear.