1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1947)
If there is one film that has become a significant part of the American ChristmasÂ tradition, it is Itâ€™s a Wonderful Life. The film had a slow start (popularity-wise) but once NBC began showing it in the seventies, it became a timeless classic and a common household tradition. Frank Capra, the all-American Depression inspiration has produced a seminal masterpiece that transcends the limitations of a Christmas movie while still remaining true to the holidayâ€™s ideals. This is the Christmas film. It may be a bit of an anticlimactic choice; but it is timeless, brilliant, and culturally significant.
Itâ€™s a Wonderful Life is a film about appreciating what one has and understanding what is truly important in life. It features a remarkably focused performance from Jimmy Stewart and an expertly crafted villain from Lionel Barrymore. While both of these actors had become regular companions to Capra, their work had never quite reached the heights they did in 1947. It isnâ€™t just great acting though; both performers are playing the roles of their careers. Mr. Potter is one of the great villains of all time. He is cynical, heartless, believable, and understandable. George Bailey is a conglomeration of hopelessness and inspiration. He is the warm light amidst a dark time in Bedford Falls. As a film about appreciation, what separates the two characters is their ability to enjoy and understand the world around them which is why when George starts to lose his joy, his behavior begins to mirror the man he most despises.
But here is a film about much more than a face-off between two characters and their moral standings. As Iâ€™m sure you all know, the film tells the story of an average guy with hopes of escaping his small, pathetic town to experienceÂ adventures; but heÂ constantly finds himself trapped as the town appears to be dependent on him. What he must learn is to cherish the fact that he is so important to something, particularly something so special. George is selfless his entire life, and as a result, rightly feels that he deserves to earn something from his labor and sacrifice. What he doesnâ€™t realize is that he already has something. He has a wonderful life. He has a full life. He has a family, friends, a world that not only loves and wants him, but needs him. He has a beautiful house, and a reputation for compassion. It is only when his guardian angel, Clarence, emerges after his seeming suicide attempt that he understands this. Clarence shows the world without him, and in doing so, George sees exactly how important he is. Knowing that he is needed and seeing his own, personal impact in the lives of everyone around them and his beloved (and I like to believe, Midwestern) town is ‘the greatest gift’ (the film’s original title) he could ever receive.
Frank Capra made a career out of creating inspirational films during the depression. His upbeat faith in humanity fit well with the darkness of the thirties. When the war started, Capra enlisted and produced the ever-famous Why We Fight propaganda series (Here is Germany is a film that I still find disturbing, and impressive feat considering how old it is). After the war, Capra sought to return to his traditional style. Unfortunately, in the war climate, noir had popularized. Darker films were what mainstream audiences sought. As a result, Itâ€™s a Wonderful Life fell flat at the box office and opened to only mildly positive reviews. But because of the films brilliant concept, superb visual style, and Capraâ€™s traditionally complex staging, the film has endured its hardship and become an all-American classic. Moments such as Georgeâ€™s awkwardly frustrated return home after the horrible day, or the snow beginning to fall as he stands looking over the side of the bridge, resonate powerfully to an audience of all ages, even after several viewings. It is a film that never gets old.
While the film is not explicitly a Christmas film, it captures the true spirit of the holiday better than any other that I have seen. I like to make the analogy that most Christmas movies expertly exemplify the commercialism associated with Christmas. Just like presents, these films are entertaining and fun, and sometimes offer legitimate sentiment. ButÂ after a few years, they just become items on aÂ shelf. Those films can only be viewed so many times before they lose their charms. They lack lasting appeal because they lack deeper meaning. Itâ€™s a Wonderful Life is not a film about opening presents, going to the north pole, learning about Christmas, becoming a better person, or even resolving dysfunctional family issues (in the normal sense). It is a film about falling in love with the world around you and embracing the life youâ€™ve been given. It is often said that Christmas is not about receiving, it is about giving. Itâ€™s a Wonderful Life is about everything that George ever gave. His life is full of his gifts to the world. His desire for adventures is much like a desire to receive presents.Â His lesson is learning that life is not about receiving rewards, going on adventures, or leaving Bedford Falls; it is about giving as much as you possibly can. Once George is able to see how much he has given, he no longer feels the need to receive. This film is about the joy of givingÂ and the pride that you can take in that.
So to me, even if Itâ€™s a Wonderful Life does not really take place on Christmas day itself, or even depict the holiday in any literal capacity, I consider it to be the quintessential Christmas film because it represents everything that the holiday stands for. And to bring back my analogy, presents fade in value, familial memories do not. That is why Itâ€™s a Wonderful Life has endured as a Christmas classic; it is embedded in family tradition and culture.
Well, that concludes our 12 days of Christmas reviews, we hope you enjoyed them (we certainly enjoyed writing them). Feel free to share your thoughts on our choices or your favorites that we didn’t cover. Have a Merry Christmas!