Why It’s a Wonderful Life is the greatest Christmas film of all time
The true spirit of Christmas10
James Stewart’s perfect casting10
The heart-warming story10
Roxy Simons | On 30, Dec 2018
Director: Frank Capra
Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers
George Bailey is a good person. He’s kind and generous, helping others at every opportunity to the detriment of his own happiness. From saving his brother from drowning, leaving him deaf in one ear, to giving clients his own money during the Great Depression, after he took over the family Building and Loans business, each selfless act represents the true spirit of Christmas. But one thing niggles at the back of his mind: his dream of seeing the world and leaving his hometown of Bedford Falls far behind. So, when his uncle accidentally misplaces all their company’s money, George can’t help but wonder what the point of it all was.
With the risk of prison and bankruptcy looming over his head, George approaches the biggest Scrooge in town: Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). The merciless tyrant, who has the lost funds in his possession, refuses to help George, telling him he’s worth more dead than alive. Despairing, George lashes out at his family, gets drunk and runs to the nearest bridge determined to end it all. Luckily, his guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), is on hand to stop him. Keen to help George see what a gift life is, and how much of an impact he truly had on his town, Clarence shows him what life would be like if he was never born, and it’s bleak. With a renewed appreciation for his circumstances, he comes to realise the joys of life.
Frank Capra’s film is one that has become synonymous with Christmas, defying all odds after it bombed at the box office during its initial release in 1946, where it saw a loss of $500,000. It’s the ultimate cult classic, becoming a huge hit after it was first shown on TV during the festive season in the 70s. Its message of kindness, generosity, and the little man prevailing over adversity through the power of love and friendship certainly holds strong even now. It’s a film that leaves viewers with a warm and fuzzy feeling every time they watch it.
Before starring in the film, James Stewart had just served in World War II, where he was a highly decorated pilot. Despite his military success, he returned to Hollywood with no real employment prospects, and he nearly left the entertainment business for good. It was Frank who persuaded him to carry on by offering him the starring role in the festive film. It would be hard to imagine It’s A Wonderful Life without its lead actor, given how captivating he is in the role. He is well cast as George, as his down-to-earth nature and boyish charm make him a perfect fit for the character – something that is true of the many other everyman roles he took on, after this film made him return to acting.
While the film does have its alarming, dark moments, such as George losing his temper with his wife, Mary (Donna Reed), and their kids, or his suicidal thoughts, the film deals with these in a reasonable way. Its emphasis is more on the joys of giving, and the notion that, even when times seem hard, life is worth living. It’s this side of the narrative that makes it such a well-loved classic, as it warms the heart and, like George himself, fully embodies the spirit of Christmas.