Despite its reputation as mawkish holiday treacle, like most Frank Capra films It’s A Wonderful Life lingers in the bleak underbelly of the American Dream. The twin shadows of the Great Depression and the horrors of WWII loom over the story, dimming the spirits of already downtrodden characters.
George Bailey, trapped in the ceaseless grind of the family business and faced with criminal prosecution, contemplates suicide. Mary’s only dream, to marry her childhood crush, comes woefully true, and she finds herself mothering a passel of kids in a rattletrap house, wedded to a man who sulks and storms. Instead of taking over the burden of the Building & Loan after George paid his way through college, Harry Bailey shrugs off his solemn promise and kites off to take a nepotistic glamour job. Small-town floozy Violet Bix hotfoots it outta town when her reputation becomes too hot for Bedford Falls. Uncle Billy, George’s second in command at the Building & Loan, is a shaky old dipsomaniac. The film’s two financially successful characters — Old Man Potter and Sam (“Hee Haw!”) Wainright — are corrupted by their prosperity (check out the telephone scene for signs of Sam’s temptations). Even the angel is a wheezy fumbler.
It’s a tremendous, moving story, but it’s no feel-good Christmas trifle. When George snaps and roars at his houseful of children, the stark reality of the scene leaps out of the screen. It’s strained and tense, palpably close to violence. Jimmy Stewart acts this with masterful control: you can see the anger sweeping across his face, through his whole body, soon followed by remorse… and then, inexorably, by anger again. It’s terrifying.
Given the tension and suppressed rage that suffuse the film, I’ve often wondered why so many people are keen to dismiss It’s A Wonderful Life as sentimental claptrap. George spends the bulk of the film exploring a bleak emotional landscape, and to what end? The moral is not some sappy observation that, golly, happiness was in your own backyard the whole time! Oh, no. It’s the simple truth that people trapped in desperate circumstances can buck up and embrace what they have, rising to meet the exigencies of fate, and find joy there. This is a bleak message, sometimes bitter and sometimes sweet, but it has the dubious merit of being true.
Uh. Merry Christmas!