It’s A Wonderful Life: The Essential Christmas Film

The young George Bailey (James Stewart) has spent his life giving to the citizens of Bedford Falls. Overwhelmed by his family business, community responsibilities and life’s expectations, he feels rooted to a company he had no interest in working for, living a life he never wanted to live. As George ages into a middle-aged man, he sees his life passing him by. Unknown to him, all of his friends and family have been praying for him to experience something good, so he can get past the hard times. Told from the perspective of some angels, he’s met by his guardians angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who shows George what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.

It’s a Wonderful Life is timeless because it’s a film which shows humanity’s two faces; the first is the good-natured and kind-hearted George Bailey (and the community). The second is depicted through local business overlord Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who judges people on their net worth and not the individuals they are (personalities and so forth). Bailey and Potter are your typical David and Goliath metaphor and from a modern eye, this film shows Christmas’ faces and what it has become in the twenty-first century (somewhat). To many it’s family time, and to others it’s become a spending spree. To me, it’s both; rank with materialism but a day for loved ones too.

James Stewart is one of those actors who I don’t believe has ever delivered a bad performance
(It’s a Wonderful Life, RKO Radio Pictures)

I admit that I phoned in Christmas nigh on ten years ago now but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a good Christmas film when they happen (they are few). It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t just good, it’s perfect: from the unhateable George Bailey to his wife Mary (Donna Reed) to the film’s villain Potter (Barrymore) to the score to the black and white photography. It’s hard not to draw parallels between Bailey’s trip of self-discovery and that of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. It’s rather Dickensian. Based on the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, I watched this again on Christmas Eve’s eve (with a catch); I saw it at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse in Northampton.

It’s a Wonderful Life makes us appreciate our loved ones as not everyone is so fortunate. If you think this is only a Christmas film, it is not. Yes, it is watched a lot at Christmas but this is a film for three hundred and sixty-five days a year (one more in a leap year). Family values, community spirit and togetherness with our fellow human beings are worth living for, not the material. Yes, money is necessary to survive but not necessary to live. Have a think about that. George delivers a fantastic speech early on in the film which highlights this. This may be Frank Capra’s masterpiece and this is not a Christmas film. Coincidentally, it so happens to have a story that coincides with Christmas.

Remember your families, your friends, your neighbours: that’s not a Christmas eulogy, that’s general practice
(It’s a Wonderful Life, RKO Radio Pictures)

James Stewart gives one of the best performances of his career. I think the best that I’ve seen is still Mr Smith Goes to Washington (a nice nod to that film in this one too) and Donna Reed is delightful, with Lionel Barrymore sending chills as Bedford Falls’ keeper (literally). From writing to direction to its feel-goodness to its portrait of stark realism, watch this film all you want as its rewatch value is infinite and it’s impossible to get bored.

That’s the thing about stuff, it can be replaced; try doing that with the people you’ve known for twenty years