A man who’s committed his life to helping his town is given a second chance when he feels like ending it all.
Frank Capra, 1946
On the night that George Bailey (James Stewart) considers ending his own life, God decides to intervene by sending an angel. First, God decides that the bumbling angel Clarence (Henry Travers) needs a briefing on George’s life. We watch George as he goes through his life, sacrificing his own happiness and dreams to support his family. Through taking over his family’s building & loan business, George also supports his town of Bedford Falls. He is well-liked by the community and beloved by his wife, Mary (Donna Reed), and children. But when everything starts to fall apart, the pressure of all the missed opportunities gets to him. In order to help George, Clarence decides to show him what his town and his family would be like if he had never been born.
Somehow I managed to make it this far in my life having never seen this Frank Capra classic, but I’ve seen more than my fair share of references to it. What surprised me is how much movie there is before the climactic moments when the “you wished you had never been born” sequence happens. In almost two hours of film, that section only takes up ten to fifteen minutes. The vast majority of the film covers George’s life from childhood through to the day when, as a father of three, his life starts to fall apart. We see his every self-sacrificing act, from saving his brother’s life as a child to giving up college to take care of the family business. Each little vignette echoes with the joys, sorrows, and disappointments of everyday lives, rather than heavy drama. Both James Stewart and Donna Reed put in lovely performances. Stewart makes George’s frustrations evident while keeping the character real in his kindness and honesty. The movie invests a lot of time in building characters and relationships, and establishing George’s place in the community.
The fact is, It’s a Wonderful Life is 90% build-up to one of the modern fairytales of cinema. You wouldn’t see a movie made today that takes as long as this one does to get to the meat of the plot, but man, it builds to one hell of an uplifting crescendo. The frustrating thing about It’s a Wonderful Life is that you can see it upholding ideals of the American nuclear family and honourable manhood and submissive womanhood that are antiquated. It’s doing a very particular job, appealing to sentiment in the time after World War II to get people to buckle down and rebuild this glorious ideal that probably never existed. But damn if it doesn’t work. The motifs worked through the film, the way that George’s own generosity comes back to save him and his family, the sense of how one life well-lived can impact on so many others all touch the soul. It’s all crafted so carefully, this manipulative work of fiction, and it all works so well.
It’s a Wonderful Life on IMDb