Golden Oldies: It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

Joe Holloran looks back on one of the most surprising Christmas hits of all time.

Joe Holloran
12th December 2016
When you think of Christmas movies what comes to mind? Snow, Christmas trees covered in decorations, an overweight, aged gentleman in a crimson gown. All pleasant thoughts. Why is it then that a film following a suicidal middle aged man’s Christmas Eve crisis has burrowed its way into our hearts and become a staple of our yuletide viewings?  It’s a Wonderful Life brings us through this dark subject matter to the light at the end of the tunnel. That light being the affirming of life, family and love.

The film follows family man George Bailey, portrayed fantastically by the charismatic James Stewart, as he struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. This despite all the seemingly wonderful things going on in his life. Namely a loving wife Mary and his caring children. Life wasn’t always this way for George though, having suffered hearing loss saving his younger brother as a child and struggling through the Wall Street Crash.

It's A Wonderful Life star James Stewart would go on to great sucess working with Hitchcock. Image:IMDB

The portrayal of George as a caring man wanting to provide for his family but let down by the system, is as relatable today as it was 70 years ago. For a film of this time It’s a Wonderful Life portrays mental health difficulties with both realism and compassion. Credit for this must go to director Frank Capra, writer Phillip Van Doren Stern and the vulnerable performance of Jimmy Stewart. George is helped through his troubles by Angel 2nd Class Clarence, who is determined to save George and gain his wings in the process. Through flashbacks we empathise greatly with George as we learn of his past problems, whilst rooting for him to find a way through the fog.

On the surface the narrative seems to suggest you and your family are about to sit down to a gloomy French neo-realist film rather than a Christmas classic. It succeeds, however, due to the life affirming message of its third act, which I won’t ruin here for the few among you who haven’t yet seen it, but it’s safe to assume that George has a change of heart. As good as Stewart is, the film would not be the same without the great performances of his co-stars, notably Donna Reed and Henry Travers. Given it surface plot it’s perhaps not hard to believe that upon it cinematic release back in the winter of 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life was a box-office failure. Just barely recouping its three-million-dollar production cost. Few films if any are this life affirming even after many viewings.

It is a great example of the indomitable human spirit to overcome adversity and sorrow and find salvation not from without, but from within one’s own heart, a will to survive and to share life with those who make it worth living.

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