There is no more “Christmas” movie in Hollywood history than Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been watched by characters from Gremlins and Home Alone 2, ridiculed countless times on The Simpsons. And it’s hard to believe that in the year of release, in 1946, the tape failed at the box office, and critics called the picture overly sentimental and pretentious. French film historian Georges Sadoul thought that the director Capra went crazy by filming this complacent and “sweet” story about angels and people.
It wasn’t until the advent of television and home video that “It’s a Wonderful Life” became a popular hit and formed an entire Christmas canon. The film has been reimagined as one of the best in Hollywood history and is now associated with the “golden era” of American cinema. The main reason for the inexhaustible popularity is nostalgia and longing for universal human values, for a small town where you really want to return, where everything is simple and familiar. But behind the Christian beauty of this cozy world lies a story about death and sadness, about the eternal defeat of the individual in his confrontation with society.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” tells the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), an ordinary resident of an ordinary American town. A kind-hearted man is on the verge of suicide, and this outrages the higher powers so much that God sends an angel to the earth to help the unfortunate. But before saving the lost soul, the spirit tells the story of Bailey.
Since childhood, he dreamed of escaping from his native city, traveling, seeing the world and experiencing amazing adventures. But to leave Bedford Falls every time something did not allow. The fact is that George Bailey is a very conscientious person who always wants to do the right thing. Responsibility for friends and neighbors makes him come back again and again – even he and his wife had to spend their honeymoon at home.
But good deeds are never rewarded in Bailey’s life. On the contrary, he only endures new hardships and punishments. As a child, he saved his brother, who fell through the ice, and his left ear stopped hearing. He then averted the tragedy by noticing an accidental substitution of medicine in a pharmacy, but received a slap in response. As an adult, Bailey literally sacrifices personal happiness and his own dreams for the sake of the city. And end up all alone. He wanted to do an honest and useful business, but he was “absorbed” by the cynical moneybag Henry Potter. Accused of a fraud he didn’t commit, penniless, Bailey decides in desperation to jump off a bridge.
At that moment, the angel shows him what Bedford Falls would be like if Bailey wasn’t there. Without him, it would have turned into a soulless and rotten place where everything good and real is sold, and people have turned into cynical businessmen and rude drunkards. Bailey is horrified at what his hometown could have become. Waking up from a vision, he runs home, happily congratulating every pole and every passer-by with Christmas.
Personal success or responsibility
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is built on numerous contrasts and oppositions, and even the benevolent ending, if you think about it, is rather contradictory. Yes, Bailey understands that all his sacrifices were not in vain, that the city is ultimately grateful to him and repays with its generosity and gratitude. Even the police officers who came to arrest him join in the singing of Christmas carols. But what, in essence, has changed in Bailey’s life, besides the fact that he most likely will not go to jail? He has lost the business that his father started, and there is still no money to feed his family and fix the crumbling house. However, Bailey is happier than ever in his life.
It is not difficult to see in “It’s a Wonderful Life” the motives of Charles Dickens and his “A Christmas Story”. The only difference is that the angels in the book came to the callous miser Scrooge, trying to awaken something human in him, while in Frank Capra, the higher powers, on the contrary, had to save the soul of the righteous. Apparently, there was no hope of reaching the heart of such a cold-blooded scoundrel as Henry Potter.
Frank Capra highlights in the film an acute and insoluble conflict in American society: the contradiction between personal success and responsibility. Bailey wanted to build a business that would not exploit society, but rather help it. But he burns out, while the thief and scoundrel Potter thrives with impunity. Bailey himself, despite his kindness and conscientiousness, is shown by Capra as if separately, isolated from the people he loves so much. And in Bedford Falls, he begins to feel like in a prison from which he is not destined to get out.
Angel in detail
The inexhaustible strength of It’s a Wonderful Life is that Capra doesn’t oversimplify the plot, reduce everything to Christmas and family values. Despite being rescued by a higher power, the miracle that happened to Bailey changes almost nothing. Except for one really important thing – perception, a look at the world. Having changed his point of view on his fate, Bailey suddenly realizes that he is happy.
Symbolic significance in the film is played by the broken railing of the stairs in Bailey’s house, a piece of which each time remains in the hands of the protagonist. At first it makes him laugh, then irritates him, and in the end leads him to despair, becomes an expression of his trouble and disorder. But after talking with the angel, he grabs these railings and kisses them – they are an integral part of his “wonderful life.” Capra’s film insists that there is always some kind of incompleteness, insolubility, and teaches us to look for strength in ourselves to see beauty and peace in contradictions.
When the world has become George Bailey’s nightmare, where everything is for sale, and even human relationships, It’s a Wonderful Life fully satisfies the longing for true love, honesty and courage. Every time you watch a movie, you want to run down the street with Bailey and say Merry Christmas to this little Bedford Falls that still has something real in it.
This is the secret of the immortality of Capra’s masterpiece. He consoles, convincing that a person is irreplaceable and each of us is important. And even imperceptible, invisible goodness, which is not rewarded in any way, does much more than we can imagine. You just need to look wider, through the eyes of angels.