Originally published on Brattle Theatre Film Notes.
There are only a few films that can be easily called a Christmas classic. They’re those stories that fill you with the appropriate warm and fuzzy feelings associated with twinkling lights, pine trees, and a jolly fat man. They are feelings that seem to embody the notion of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men and inspire love and hope during the coldest time of the year.
And now one of the seminal classics is celebrating its 70th birthday this month. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in 1946, and in the decades since it first graced the silver screen, it has become a holiday favorite of the critics and public alike.
For those that are unfamiliar with the film or only know it as that old movie parodied in dozens of Christmas specials, the story follows one George Bailey (James Stewart), the human linchpin to the peace and prosperity of the town of Bedford Falls. We watch this selfless, goofy man go grow up in the first half of the 20th century, fall in love with a beautiful woman (Donna Reed), and help his community by keeping his father’s savings and loan business from being taken down by the rich and powerful Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Things go pretty well until an unfortunate series of events leads George to have a crisis of faith and nearly throw himself off a bridge. He is saved by a wingless angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) who shows George just how important he is to the town by revealing an alternate world where our hero had never been born. The resulting epiphany and the community’s response lead to a syrupy finale that is perfectly appropriate in a season known for sugar plums and candy canes.
Like all great classics, at its heart is a battle between good and evil, between a humble middle-class community represented by the everyday man George Bailey and the personification of gross, greedy capitalism, Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter is always plotting and scheming on how to amass more money and power, even going so far as basically buying Bedford Falls’ bank after it failed during the Great Depression. A fat man in a wheelchair, Mr. Potter is borderline cartoonish in his villainy, charging insane rents for broken down shacks, offering outrageous interest rates on loans, and showing no sympathy for hardships. He stares at the world with beady little eyes while surrounded by flagrant opulence; a Scrooge without ghosts to offer redemption.
The extent of his villainy is even more apparent in the alternate world Clarence the Angel shows George. Without George to battle against Mr. Potter’s money and power, the town falls completely under the antagonist’s control. Now called Pottersville (a clear inspiration for Back to the Future Part II’s Biff controlled world), the town is full of callous people, strip clubs, and near anarchy. The message is clear: this is what greedy capitalism does to a community; it turns it into a pitiless, immoral waste of a town.
Frank Capra has denounced the evils of capitalism before. It’s a theme that appears in his other well-known films, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). But It’s a Wonderful Life was different. The film premiered at a time in which the country was gearing up for the Cold War and McCarthyism, so consequently any hint of anti-capitalist sentiment could be construed, however slight, as pro-communist. Therefore it’s not a surprise that the FBI wasn’t happy with It’s a Wonderful Life when it reached the theaters, a response audiences seemed to have shared. The movie bombed in the box office in its initial release and lost the studio and Capra thousands of dollars.
Ironically, it was capitalism that put the movie back into the spotlight. In the 1970s, when the film’s copyright expired, television channels, looking for something cheap and easy to fill up air time, began showing it ad nauseam, bringing the tale back into the public consciousness. The studio has since regained the rights to the film, but Capra’s creation hasn’t lost its popularity.
Part of its appeal, no doubt, comes from the love and support that emanates from the people of Bedford Falls in the face of Mr. Potter’s evil. George alone is responsible for this. By keeping his father’s saving and loans business running, George gives the town’s people not only an affordable option to finance their own homes outside of Mr. Potter’s outrageous rates, but a sense of community. Even though George more than once uses his own money to finance his savings and loans business, the basic premise of the company is to use costumers’ money to fund their neighbors’ homes. In essence, this set up enables everyone to help each other build their own slice of the American middle class dream. In this way, George shows them that they can overcome a seemingly all-powerful evil by working together. It is a sentiment that the community acknowledges in the end by pledging their support for George in his time of need.
It’s always comforting to see people come together to support each other. It is this communal caring and affection that spurs on all those appropriate warm and fuzzy feelings and makes this movie a Christmas classic. Bedford Falls shows that there is love in the world, and within that love, hope for the future. The people and community within It’s a Wonderful Life are not perfect, being incredibly insular and glaringly white. But it is story that has always been and in some ways is even more important to remember and believe in, especially in this very explosive and divisive year.