A note from Lindsey: Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating today! I hope you all are having a fantastic holiday! Today wraps up the Eight Days of Christmas series, and I’m sharing a review of one of the most beloved Christmas classics, It’s a Wonderful Life. Previous posts: The Bishop’s Wife, Boys Town, Miracle on 34th Street, Bundle of Joy, A Christmas Wish, Beyond Christmas, and Remember the Night
It’s a Wonderful Life is a true holiday classic that needs no introduction. You all know the story — a man whose life has had its ups and downs is contemplating suicide, until an angel visits him and shows him what the lives of his loved ones would be like without him. The film was directed by TMP favorite Frank Capra and is an unavoidable staple of the holiday season, like fairy lights and Santa himself.
The fantasy “glimpse” segment is the most memorable part of It’s a Wonderful Life, and the most influential. It’s been remade as a TV movie, parodied many times, and the idea has been revisited in films like The Family Man. The town’s depravity and Mary’s sad alternate life (that dowdy librarian stereotype!) in George’s glimpse are somewhat comical, but there’s no denying that this portion of the film is very striking, and has helped cement It’s a Wonderful Life‘s “holiday classic” status.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a film that heavily pushes the traditional values of the midcentury — marriage, a 9-to-5 career, a nice house in a small town, a growing family. Some viewers will find his antiquated. Others will complain that the film is too “pro-conformity” (a valid criticism). Personally, I don’t think this detracts from the film’s charm or emotional impact. It’s a film that’s very much of its time period, and that’s okay with me.
Praise is justifiably heaped on Jimmy Stewart’s performance in this film, and it is one of his best. He’s kind of a male counterpart to Barbara Stanwyck in that he can deliver a rant like no other. Also delivering stellar performances are Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter (a truly despicable villain) and Donna Reed as Mary.
Reed has nice chemistry with Jimmy, especially in the scenes of their young courtship. She comes off as a sweet, loving woman but also a very strong one. She keeps her composure and perseveres even through the family’s struggles and George’s shifts in attitude.
In true Capra fashion, It’s a Wonderful Life is a film with a message: If you’re kind to people and help those in need, they will stand by you in YOUR time of need.
In its (very successful, if sentimental) quest to teach that lesson, the film is quite grim. A story of hardship is used to portray a moralistic and hopeful message. From childhood, George faces struggles, and at times he lets them get the best of him. The script shows us both the good and the bad, allowing the viewer to sympathize with George while also understanding that his life hasn’t all been doom and gloom. It’s a life worth living for… and It’s a Wonderful Life is a film worth watching every Christmas.