It's A Wonderful Life

It's A Wonderful Life

****

Reviewed by: Monica Wolfe Murray

It's A Wonderful Life delivers a surprising underlying message. It suggests that there is a heavy price to pay for generosity and kindness. Strange, isn't it, for the heartwarmer of all time, a film people seem to need to watch every year to top up their reserves of goodwill and faith in humankind?

Look at the story: it centers on the life of a good man, George Bailey (James Stewart), in a great little town, Bedford Falls. George is a kind, generous type, the friendly affable guy next door, not a bad bone in his body, etc. The first half of the film is practically a litany of George's good deeds.

Copy picture

But look again: for every one of his good turns, there is a price, a sacrifice he has to make. He saves his little brother's life - left deaf in one ear. He saves his employer's career and reputation - humiliation, beating, more damage to same ear. He saves his dad's business - misses out on further education. He supports his brother's schooling, career, military fame - goodbye dream of travel and adventure. He saves the ethical agency from collapse - adieu honeymoon.

All George wants is to see the world, but he never actually leaves Bedford Falls. Things conspire to keep him there. Before he knows it, his pleasant reality has become a trap. He runs a savings and loans agency that provides a future for many a decent folk; he is married, with four children. Soon, we are led to understand something more sinister. George and his agency are the only thorns in the side of the town's arch villain, the greedy/rotten Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Without George, Potter would rule and what a mean world that would be.

This is the Bedford Falls battlefield: good against evil, fair community progress versus cynical exploitation, George's dream versus George's reality.

When it starts looking like a losing battle - Potter gaining an unfair advantage, the agency doomed, George's reputation threatened, his dream so remote and yet such a constant ache - he begins to feel that there is nothing more he can give but his life.

Time for divine intervention, then: the wingless angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) appears and shows him what the world would have been like without him, hence what a huge effect he - humble, insignificant George Bailey - has had on the lives of every person around him. This is what we all secretly want to know, the meaning of our lives, the ripple we make in the big pond, the addictive "what if", an irrepressible desire to find the reason and sense of it all.

Lucky George (the same guy we were busy pitying a minute ago). He gets to see with his own eyes the desolation his being alive prevented. He gets to gaze into the sad, glazed faces of ruined people, whom his intervention has actually saved from bankruptcy and despair. He gets to walk through Pottersville, the heartless place Bedford Falls would have become were it not for him.

Lucky George for another reason, too. He doesn't know - but we do - that the evil Potter remained unpunished. Also, he doesn't know how many warm, welcoming places became Pottersvilles over the past 50 years. Maybe, that is why we need to visit Bedford Falls every Christmas, without fail.

Of course, It's A Wonderful Life relies on a great script, captivating performances and the inspirational drive of its director/producer, Frank Capra, to deliver the essential message: every life counts and the result of kindness and selflessness - although not immediately apparent - is friendship and a better world.

Reviewed on: 12 Dec 2003
Share this with others on...
It's A Wonderful Life packshot
Christmas classic about a disheartened businessman who is helped by an angel, gets a seasonal reissue.
Amazon link

Director: Frank Capra

Writer: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra

Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Virginia Patton

Year: 1946

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

Festivals:


Search database: