When people start talking about the "best" films for various occasions, themes and genres debate immediately arises as to what one uses to define each situation, particularly when such categories engage in multiple decades. However, when it comes to debates about the best Christmas film of all time it seems nearly universal that people believe Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life to be heads above any of its competition, a surprisingly interesting phenomenon to emerge, considering that it is hardly a movie solely centered on Christmas time and, further, it has such a heavy element of darkness and sadness that one would be hard pressed to play it without concerns for shedding a tear or two. However, after having the great opportunity to see an high definition transfer of this seminal work, I am more than willing to give all the credit to this film for its general well-regard. Of course, It's A Wonderful Life certainly exists within a history of cinema which was incredibly exclusive, focusing primarily on a white middle class society, with a male at its helm. Yet, the inherent likability of Jimmy Stewart, paired with a narrative so simple and direct that viewers nearly have it ingrained in their memories from birth, making for a film which causes generations to pass its perfection on from one age to another. Seeing this film now, for the first time since childhood, also allowed me to appreciate some of the more experimental and revolutionary elements of a film that I figured to be wholly melodramatic, whether it be the fade from grey to blurry to normal picture as we are introduced to George Bailey for the first time, or the talking stars bit...something seemingly more appropriate for Night of the Hunter. Also, for as oft quoted as the bit about bells and wings has become, I was surprised by how little of the narrative centers on the famous scene. Essentially, viewers are provided with one of the greatest single character studies in the history of film, so directly focused on understanding the intricacies of human suffering and sacrifice, without engaging in any level of pretentious preachiness. Even the latent Christian elements of the film appear to take a back seat to karma like understanding of human existence.
The story of It's A Wonderful Life is extravagantly simple, we are dropped in medias res on the town of Bedford Falls praying for the well-being of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who from what the film suggests is suffering from a bit of bad luck. Quickly viewers are transferred an image of the cosmos as spectral stars discuss a means by which to save the ailing George who is about to commit suicide, agreeing to send an angel in need of wings named Clarence (Henry Travers), the film through the angels begins to recount the experiences of George, in an attempt to explain why he has been driven to the point of seriously considering the end of his life. Beginning with a moment in which he saves his younger brother in a sledding accident to only lose hearing in his ear, we are shown a hard-willed George who is also incredibly self-sacrificing when his actions assure that others will be aided. Progressing at a perfect pace through George's growing older we are led to believe that George has given up aspirations of world travel in order to help maintain his father's business, save his town from being bought out by the terrible capitalist Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), or assuring for the comfort and well being of his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and their children. Yet even after these varied forms of sacrifice, a bit of trouble financially on Christmas Eve and an accidental misplacement of money by his uncle at which he risks losing everything causes him to toss away hope and stand on the local bridge with thoughts of ending it all. However, when a loud splash is heard, George jumps to the rescue of none other than Clarence, who explains openly that he is an angel and after George exclaims that he wishes he had never been born, provides him with such an experience, one in which all his friends are miserable under the ruthless and greedy hands of Mr. Potter. Taking joy in realizing that even in this moment of misery that he has helped countless members of his community, George pleads to return to his life, one which leads to his return home to the open arms of his family and the monetary support of an entire community, George realizes that his unquestioning willingness to help others has proven more bountiful than he could have imagined.
As the young Woody Allenesque theater manager at my local theater suggested when introducing the film, viewers are led to seriously consider what "a wonderful life" truly is while watching this film, which is certainly true, but such a reading is far too simple since the film makes it quite clear that it is going to undermine capitalist desires and American individualism within nearly every scene, at times even vilifying its existence via Mr. Potter. Instead, I really think the film, despite its latent Christian metaphors and imagery, asks viewers to consider, at the very least, the philosophy they use to engage with daily life, one that is not centered in materialistic obsessions in the slightest. While George Bailey certainly does not find himself void of physical desires, particularly in his younger years, he is not obsessed with money or physical signifiers of success like his brother, business patrons or even his wife at times, but instead his own happiness, which proves far to intertwined with the happiness of others. This approach to the world is nearly identical the that of a zen buddhist, in so much as he often tosses away worldly desires with the hopes of making sure others are comfortable, while also engaging in some seriously positive karma. One could see him as a fool for such actions, but that would suggest that he engages in them with assumptions that he will receive compensation at some point, however, it is clear from the onset that he offers help out of earnest, not out of ulterior objectives. Of course, one cannot completely ignore the Christian elements to George, as he is exceptionally Christlike in his endeavors. Of course, George's form of Christianity is a far cry from the nonsense and bigotry seemingly tied to so many contemporary sects of this particular belief system. While I am not a Christian myself, I would make a strong case that It's A Wonderful Life exists as a transcendent example of exemplary behavior both in a religious and social context.
Key Scene: The world without George scenes are stellar and really become more intense of the big screen, culminating in a moment where Jimmy Stewart's scare visage consumes the screen...I felt my heart leap considerably.
So apparently this film comes on television some 300 plus times a year. Watch it at any point, although it is a bit mesmerizing on the big screen and well worth watching in that context if possible.