In his first post war production, director, Frank Capra alienated audiences with this somber tale of an 'every man' driven to the brink of suicide, but given the very great gift of being able to see what life would be like if he had never been born. There are many today who regard It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) as the American Christmas Carol; its apocalyptic last act easily rivaling Ebenezer Scrooge’s carpet-hauling to his own grave, illustrating for our world-weary protagonist the perils of his wish fulfillment in an alternate universe where the goodness and light while he lived is turned into the murky chalk of social iniquity by his absence. Capra’s rare genius for looking into the human condition and finding its’ raw emotional core had always been particularly well expressed in a series of memorable movies made at Columbia Pictures during the 1930s. Capra’s repatriation into the war effort in the early forties, coupled with a split from his alma mater upon his return from service, created a minor disconnect in his career. Between 1941 and 1946 Capra was effectively ‘off the screen’ except for his contributions to the ‘Why We Fight’ franchise of wartime morale-boosting propaganda. Like fellow film maker, George Stevens, Capra returned from the conflicts abroad a changed man; arguably, a more precise individualist, unafraid to stare into the brooding darkness and squarely face the fear and loathing found from within – something Capra’s heroes throughout the frothy 1930s never did.
Alas, like Capra, the world had also gone through a metamorphosis and with it, audience’s tastes permanently altered in their popular entertainments. Ironically, this seismic shift ought to have made It’s A Wonderful Life a sizable hit. For it fed into the movies’ increasingly murkier impressions of life at large, exemplified most transparently by the ‘film noir’ movement (as yet to be classified as such, though nevertheless pervasive). And yet, It’s A Wonderful Life was a miserable flop, effectively sealing the fate of Capra’s fledgling ‘Liberty Films’ production company. Perhaps audiences were expecting something else from Capra – a return to form, or a movie to affirm for those hopeful, if waned spirits that the post-war gestalt had not entirely eroded the moral axis of humanity. Whatever the case, the picture was a regrettable ‘ahead-of-its-time’ flop, destined for greater longevity in the intervening decades after late night television took hold and began reissuing It’s A Wonderful Life over and over again for audiences to reassess at their own leisure. Remarkably, the picture’s legacy has only continued to ripen with each passing year, perhaps, because the audience today has steadily digressed from the idealisms of James Stewart’s every man, George Bailey into the haunting peripheries of hopelessness experienced during his alternate reality sojourn through the labyrinth of his own design.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a far more mature movie than audiences were willing to embrace in 1946. Perhaps they simply had tired of those terrible years of war or disillusioned by a character who wished himself gone from the earth at precisely a time when so many were grateful to be alive and coming home from the global nightmare abroad. By now, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is so much a part of our yearly televised tradition it seems all but impossible to regard it as anything but a classic. Irrefutably, from an artistic standpoint at least, it always was one. But at the time of its theatrical release, the story skillfully scripted by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling and Capra himself found utter indifference to outright resistance at the box office; in retrospect, a genuine shame. Despite 5 Oscar nominations, It’s A Wonderful Life entered the history books as a turkey with a resounding thud that effectively ended Capra's dreams of being his own boss. It also made Capra subservient to the powers that be elsewhere. I would argue that with one exception Capra’s career was effectively over after It’s A Wonderful Life; 1948’s State of the Union, made by Liberty Films for MGM, a brilliant sort of loose readdressing of the themes previously explored in the more iconic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Although Capra continued to make movies until 1961 he would never again enjoy the autonomy or popularity derived from this ‘golden period’; his last movie, A Pocketful of Miracles, a weak-kneed remake of his own Lady for a Day (1933).
Of all the stories Capra ever committed to tell, It’s A Wonderful Life is perhaps his most disturbingly profound and emotionally satisfying. We are taken on a very complex journey this time around: through a man’s flawed trajectory in life - the thwarted desire he repeatedly suffers, regarding himself as a failure while he makes valiant strides to pursue dreams much too great to fill his meager instep; fate, interfering in his thirst for ‘greatness’. Herein, Capra illustrates the merit of ‘greatness’ by redefining the word itself; not so much about what is in the mind of the daydreamer hoping to achieve it for himself, but how more modest, daily gestures in this life can positively impact and unknowingly create purpose and achievement more profoundly felt in the lives of others. George Bailey’s gradually resentment at constantly being made the buffer against virtually every social injustice burdening the town of Bedford Falls, leads to temporary disillusionment that weighs as a millstone around George’s neck. Lacking any tangible reward for even these efforts, George temporarily succumbs to the misconception his entire life has been wasted. He is brought to heel and taught an invaluable lesson by Clarence Odbody: Angel – second class (the lovable and underrated Henry Travers); made to see all of the shining gifts his own life and struggles have yielded, not only for the community at large he has diligently served throughout these many decades, seemingly without distinction, but in the realities of his own happy home.
The penultimate ‘message’ of the piece, “no man is a failure who has friends” is a bit oversimplified to truly satisfy; perhaps, a tad forced in its harking all the way back to the more lithe and looney ‘Capra-corn’ imbuing the earlier movies. Yet, in James Stewart, Capra possesses precisely the gentlemanly grace and fortitude necessary to give ballast to the quaint notion any man who loves, and is loved by many in return, is undeniably, the richest and most splendid bugger in town. And Stewart illustrates the heartbreaking pain in coming to this startling, if not altogether terrible original, or even profound, realization. As he leans against Martini’s bar, soaked through to the bone from having lumped it on foot through a hellish snowstorm; glassy-eyed with anxious tears for an indiscretion he has not committed (but will likely be arrested and tried for as its scapegoat), praying to God for guidance, only to be interrupted by a physical assault on his person; Stewart’s George Bailey completely loses his way, or rather, thoroughly abandons his moral compass. He is truly a ‘lost soul’ – unable to see the merit in living any longer, reminded in tinny echoes that his life now may be worth more to his family as a corpse on which they can at least collect from his life insurance policy. How did a man of George’s immeasurable talents and immaculate passion for people come to fall so low? And where can he possibly go from here?
Capra and Stewart discover their cause célèbre together; guided by Capra’s uncompromising belief that the Lord will not allow a good man his tumble into the permanent depths of such overwhelming despair. But the Lord…well, He tends to work in very mysterious ways. And so, the answer to George Bailey’s prayers is not an obliteration of his woes or fulfillment of his own dreams and desires, merely to remedy the rank cynicism brewing within himself; in other words, to be given precisely the reasons he thinks are important to validate himself as a ‘truly great man’. God, after all, is not the tooth fairy or a genie. He does not ‘grant wishes’. But He does shine a light on the misfortunes to befall, should George exercise his free will and choose to take his own life. And so we – and George – come to discover Bedford Falls greatly changed in his absence; the quiet snowy hamlet reborn as Pottersville; as a sort of mid-American Sodom and Gomora, overrun by moral decadences and political corruption proliferated by the untampered greed of George’s arch nemesis; Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, in a thoroughly disturbing performance). Here is the antithesis to George Bailey’s merits as a community organizer and much beloved moral compass for all concerned. Without George his brother, Harry (Todd Karns) would have drowned as a youngster in the frigid waters of a nearby pond; their mother (Beulah Bondi), made bitter and mean; the town vixen, Violet Bickel (Gloria Grahame) turned to prostitution, and, Bedford’s trusted apothecary, Emil Gower (H.B. Warner) made the laughable town rummy after accidentally being responsible for a young boy’s death by inadvertently poisoning a prescription.
Capra’s point is undeniably to force Stewart’s downtrodden fellow to bear witness to the integral part he has unwittingly played in reshaping the moral fiber of every member in this small community. Far from having been a failure at life, George Bailey has enriched the lives of so many; each recognizing merit in their own as well as the strength of sentiment for having known him. Perhaps relying on the old adage about ‘no man being an island’, Capra carries this notion one step further, showing George how fragile these various destinies hang in the balance and are gingerly held together by the choices he alone has made, perhaps even unknowingly, for the furtherance of all. That George Bailey cannot see this for himself is the real ‘failing’ in his life; the one God will choose to rectify and, eventually, restore to him as the ultimate Christmas blessing. George Bailey has, in fact, led an exemplary life. Assuming the burdens of sustaining his home town of Bedford Falls with the only independent financial institution to rival tyrannical millionaire, Henry F. Potter after the death of his own father (Samuel S. Hinds), George has also been blessed in marrying the prettiest girl in town; Mary Hatch (Donna Reed).These are no small feats of achievement. Yet, George considers the arc of his life's work a complete and utter waste of time because he never achieved the basic dreams he aspired to – adventure, travel and heady times becoming a ‘big man’ in the big city.
Indeed, the Baileys are rich in only one thing – friendships – an intangible George does not entirely comprehend for its true value. Herein, Capra illustrates a fundamental of the human condition at large; abject complacency, nee naïve blindness in believing the world that surrounds has simply evolved without any help, participation or impact made by our own place and contributions within it. Even the smallest gestures in life can foster ripples to promote either pride or regret. In fact, George Bailey has all but taken these life associations for granted. Yet, now fate has conspired against even this modest life and possibly even his reputation as an inherently ‘good man’; reputation inadvertently threatened when Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces the Savings and Loan deposit, slated for the bank. Without this payment the organization his father founded will be cast into bankruptcy and scandal. Seizing the opportunity to ruin George once and for all, his wheelchair-bound rival, Mr. Potter, recognizing the principled cache George might still bring to the table, albeit deviously bent to Potter’s will and reforms, first attempts to bribe George with the promise of wealth and authority in their small town. When George refuses, Potter threatens foreclosure, imprisonment and financial ruin. This leads George to believe his family would be better off if he were dead.
If postwar America was anticipating another 'feel good' masterpiece from Frank Capra, they were well to receive it, albeit in a more subdued, though arguably just as undiluted form. To be sure, It’s A Wonderful Life dabbles in the familiar ‘Capra-corn’ with ample dollops of sugary sweetness. But these moments are counterbalanced by the harsh realities of life (the death of a parent and the surrender of a dream) and capped off by Capra’s nightmarish regression into a world without George Bailey: not a dream sequence, but a plummet into purgatory from which no redemption of the soul is possible. Even George and Mary's courtship is hardly of the idyllic ‘hearts and flowers’ ilk usually sprinkled in Hollywood-ized pixie dust. There are no violin strings, starry-eyed montages and moony gazes exchanged under a starlit trellis; no cool rippling waters mirroring divine bliss from inside the wishing well. In fact, in some ways the romance between George and Mary in It’s A Wonderful Life owes more to the infrequently interrupted trajectory of lusts and passions inherited by a noir hero; a strange undercurrent never more superficially represented than in the ebullient high school graduation vignette.
George meets Mary at Harry's high school prom. Mary is a senior. The worldlier Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) openly flirts with George. But Harry makes George promise to dance with Mary instead. Freddie (Alfalfa Switzer), a jealous rival for Mary’s affections looms over George and Mary's immediate happiness, despite the fact she prefers George. Hence, given half the incentive and all of the opportunity to exact revenge, Freddie activates the gymnasium floor. It opens beneath the dancers revealing the school's swimming pool beneath as George and Mary - along with half the attending guests - plunge into the waters. Strolling home afterward in oversized bathrobes and football attire, wet clothes slung over their shoulders, Mary confides to George her future aspirations for quaint domesticity. But these dreams are interrupted when Harry arrives in a borrowed jalopy to inform his brother their father, Peter, has suffered a fatal heart attack.
From this moment forward, It’s A Wonderful Life steadily digresses from the usually ascribed sunny backdrop of a traditional Capra movie. George’s dreams of going off to college upon Harry’s return are dashed when his new fiancée, Ruth Dakin (Virginia Patton) suggests Harry’s interests would be best served by an appointment in her father’s lucrative factory back home; an opportunity George can see as a benefit for his brother whom he loves. So, once again, sacrifices are made and again, George puts his own happiness on hold. Harry’s love for Mary is neither immediate nor even steadfast. He resists her obvious advances in a thoroughly mean-spirited attempt to be rid of her influence; a love, he ultimately cannot resist. And George and Mary are happy – or so it would appear – achieving smaller victories for their neighbors; home ownership at a time when the average wage earner was still being threatened with the aftermath of the Great Depression. Potter is incensed that Peter Bailey’s modest enterprise, one he has repeatedly failed to possess either honestly (forcing the stockholder’s vote, that comes out in George’s favor) or by ‘hook’ and ‘crook’. Thus, when Uncle Billy’s lackadaisical misfiling of the Savings and Loan deposit results in a possible scandal for everyone, Potter seizes the opportunity to either ruin George once and for all, or sway his influence to a darker purpose; a prospect even more detrimental to the forthrightness and legacy of Peter Bailey.
Refusing to partake of this blackmail, yet seeing no safe haven as his retreat, George contemplates suicide to spare his wife and children their good name. He is rescued from these ill thoughts by Clarence Odbody, shown the monumental destructiveness his plotted demise would have on an entire community. Never having been born, George could not save Harry from drowning. In tandem, Harry, who in life distinguished himself as a war hero, now is not there to save the lives of a good many fellow servicemen after their ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Without George, Mary turns spinsterish; Ma Bailey, an embittered curmudgeon; Emil Gower, a drunken ex-con, belittled and humiliated by Nick – the bartender (Sheldon Leonard); Violet, become a cheap prostitute. Even the veritable milk of human kindness expressed by George’s best friends, Ernie, the cabbie (Frank Faylen) and Bert, the cop (Ward Bond) is remade as cynical – even sinister – speculation. What George has utterly failed to realize until this moment is how meaningful his life has been to his friends; how the kindnesses shown others have helped to shape their lives and how great a success his own has been in their reflected triumphs made in the interwoven fabric of all their lives.
Pleading for his life after the nightmare has all but consumed both the sanctity and sanity of the world he once knew and cherished, George is restored to his former self. He hurries home to find Mary and his children eager for his return, and Mary – having learned of the mislaid funds and Potter’s threats to prosecute for embezzlement – now called in all the markers from the many friendships she and George have cultivated over these passing years; the outpouring of sentiment and badly needed monies freely given by all their neighbors more than amply to cover the debt and thus to absolve George from facing any prosecution for a crime that, after all, he did not commit in the first place. Herein, Capra opens the floodgates in an outpouring of public opinion for the redemption of our beloved fallen man; the various characters we have been introduced to along the way, each pledging all that they can to procure a very Merry Christmas for George Bailey and his family – even Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson); the man who, having failed to wed Mary, and later, to have been turned down by George for a joint business venture into plastics, now himself flush with cash, sending along a telegram to inform George he will advance him whatever is required to help in the reparations. “To my big brother, George,” Harry Bailey, newly come home from the war, prophetically announces, “…the richest man in town.”
We depart the theater at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life in the shared gratitude of this penultimate redemption of a man’s soul. And James Stewart’s reaction to hearing these words reveals nothing short of an epiphany for the character. The swell of sentiment Capra releases as screen as the gathered rejoice, imbued with the Christmas spirit, set to the magnificent strains of Auld Lang Syne concludes the picture on a tearful reminder that life rarely offers its pursuer what is desired, but it almost always allows for our just deserts. George Bailey is indeed ‘the richest man in town’ – the greatest gift of all, unknowingly shared with all – is in turn reciprocated to George at precisely the moment when he begins to doubt the point of his own purpose in life. No man is an island, after all, and George Bailey’s rediscovery of his self-worth strengthens his resolve; Capra’s sublime message to the rest of us; to do more, do better, and perhaps do it better than anyone else. Certainly, no one could do it as well as Frank Capra. James Stewart’s performance as the every-man at the end of his rope is genuine. In the moments following his initial confrontation with Clarence we see George’s mind eagerly at work, believing the hoax, however elaborately conceived. Yet, it is in the starker and more terrifying realization, that his void in society has managed to dismantle everything once immeasurably enriched by his presence, we come to fully appreciate the film’s penultimate message as perhaps more profound than it really is: no man is a failure who has friends. Oh yes…and every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings. “At’a boy, Clarence.” Kudos to Stewart and Capra too.
After releasing a restored B&W print on DVD four Christmases ago; then, a B&W and colorized Collector's Set last Christmas, Universal Home Video has seen fit to redistribute a repackaged It's A Wonderful Life yet again on Blu-Ray – advertised as a ‘Platinum Edition’. If you already own any of the previously issued Blu-rays there is virtually no point to getting this one, because what it amounts to is the same disc content and transfer quality, merely ported over with new cover art. We get an immaculate image with startling moments of clarity and razor-sharp fine detail; marred only by the ever so slight hint that untoward DNR has been applied to homogenize the grain structure (though not to egregious levels) and minute hints of edge enhancement crop up now and then (while present, not distracting and therefore, decidedly not a deal breaker in my opinion). Yes, the colorized version also benefits from this 1080p upgrade, but if anything, the sharper image illustrates even more glaringly the limitations of the colorization process. On the B&W version the gray scale has been impeccably mastered with stunning tonality. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. All age-related blemishes have been removed for an incredibly smooth visual presentation. The audio is mono as originally recorded, but restored and sounding magnificent. Extras are the anomaly here: we get the much regurgitated ‘making of’ featurette but lose the personal reflection from Frank Capra Jr. that has never accompanied any home video release since the bad ole VHS days. The original theatrical trailer has also been remastered in HD. Bottom line: while many will poo-poo this reissue as it brings virtually nothing new to the table, I cannot honestly say what is here is not worth your money, especially if you have never owned this classic on Blu-ray. So, if you have not shelled out for this movie in hi-def yet, this reissue comes very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)