A film review by Craig J. Koban  December 20, 2004






60th Anniversary Retrospective Review  

1946, no MPAA rating, 123 mins.

Directed by Frank Capra /  Written by Capra, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Jo Swerling / Based on "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern

If there is a better and more magical Christmas film than Frank Capraís ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE, then I would surely like to know what it is. 

Yes, there have been a very small selection of great Christmas films, classics like MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, A CHRISTMAS CAROL and to more recent works like THE POLAR EXPRESS (a film that I am willing to bet my morning donut on will be much more respected in the years to come).  Yet, Capraís 1946 film still goes down as one of the most watched and cherished of all the Christmas films.  Anyone doubting this assertion should consider one obvious sentiment:

Can you not find this film on any major television channel either on or before Christmas? 

Not likely.   

Itís amazing how much audiences - especially contemporary ones -  so wholeheartedly embrace this film.  Contrary to popular belief, ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE was not a huge box office hit upon its initial theatrical release (it barely made back its original budget in ticket sales), nor was it a darling of the mainstream critics of the time (several significant American critics of the 40's loathed the film).  It did manage to garner five Academy Award nominations (including one for Best Picture and one - most importantly and deservedly - for Best Actor for the late Jimmy Stewart in the lead role), but critics and filmgoers alike nevertheless poorly received the film.  Yet, the film, to this day, remains not only one of the most appreciated Christmas fables of all-time, but is often seen as a landmark work for both Jimmy Stewart and director Capra.  It certainly would make a list of my own of the greatest films of all-time. 

Question:  How did this film become so widely loved and respected? 

Answer:  U.S. copyright law.

The greatest single irony behind ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE just may be in a loophole in U.S. copyright law.  The film, at least before mid-1970ís, was still copyrighted.  Before this time it was probably respected no more than as a little seen Christmas film.  This all changed in 1974 when, most inexplicably, the filmís copyright was not renewed and, as a result, it tumbled into those murky and ambiguous waters known as the public domain.  In other words, any television station anywhere could get a print of the film and show it, as many times as they liked, and they could do so without obtaining any formal permission.   

This was probably the best and worst thing to ever happen to the film.  It was great because - with it saturating of the TV airways - millions upon millions of viewers were being exposed to this film that had, most likely, never seen it before.  A newly built audience was established and this single-handedly created the type of cult following that the film has now.  ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE, before its copyright eroded, was nothing more than a forgotten Christmas film.  After itís copyright was gone, with so many people seeing it, the film became elevated to the upper echelon of cinematic greatness. 

Its rediscovery by fans all over the world created ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE as an essential part of our cinematic and holiday seasonal traditions.  The film became as much a part of Christmas as opening presents or trimming the tree.  Network executives also caught on to what a good thing the film was becoming and - in an immeasurably shrewd and smart move of counter programming on their part - they used the film (which was free for their use) and played it opposite of other big and glossy network specials.  With time, ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE was being watched more and more.  This small town classic grew and grew until it became something more than just a holiday filmÖit became a holiday ritual. 

All of this was great, especially for Capra and Stewart (the actor, to his dying days, always maintained that this film was, indeed, the favorite of his career).  If anything, the film brought a considerable amount of cheer (not to mention critical and popular vindication) to the hearts of the makers.  On the negative side, the lack of a copyright led to the film being victim to the most heinous and insidious crimes that could be perpetrated Ė it was colorized.  This prompted Stewart to testify before the U.S. Congress in an effort to promote film preservation and restoration.  The colorized version was a bastardized edition that altogether stripped away the entire beauty and purity of the original black and white film.  In the newly computerized colorized version, the film looked God-awful and lost its sense of timelessness.  Anyone that feels colorizing old films is a good idea, consider: How would you emotionally respond to looking at photos of your great-grandparents if the original sepia toned prints were hand colored?  See what I mean?  The magic is completely gone. 

As for the film itself?  Well, having just viewed it on a glorious new remastered Special Edition DVD, the one thing that always stands out about it is its timelessness and sense of nostalgia.  On basic levels, ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE dramatically is an uplifting and sentimental fable and a morality tale.  Yet, the film has the strong ability to go beyond its inherent melodrama and contain themes that are universal: No matter how insignificant you may feel you are, you are important and that your life touches and affects so many others, sometimes beyond your own recognition and understanding.  These are powerful motifs and ones that span beyond cultures and borders.  

I think that is the key to the filmís overwhelming sense of appeal.  Itís universally attractive in ways so many films are not.  Itís simple and straightforward storytelling at its finest.  Sure, it's more corn-infested that the fields of Iowa, but the film nevertheless grows greater with age and improves with familiarity and repeated viewings.  Watching the film is kind of like revisiting old friends you never grow tired of and that is the key to encapsulating what a true classic film is like.  Itís one that - no matter how many times you've seen it - still remains fresh, entertaining, endearing, and wonderful.  I probably canít name more a dozen or so films that resonate in this way, and ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE is clearly at the top of the list. 

Almost everyone knows the story of the film, even those who have never seen the film are familiar with its basic premise.  George Bailey (played by in my favourite screen performance of all-time by Jimmy Stewart) is an average Joe from Bedford Falls.  While he was a child he was a wholesome, all-American kid who was selfless and sensitive (he saves his own brother from drowning and becomes deaf in one ear as a result).  As he grows into adulthood he gives up his lifelong dream of traveling the world over and to go to college and instead stays home to take over his fatherís building and loan business.  By his own philosophy, Bailey lived his life feeding off of the riches of friendship and family, which always meant more to him than monetary wealth.   

Unfortunately for Bailey, the evil and miserable town millionaire, Potter (played with an unsurpassed amount of nastiness and contempt by the great Lionel Barrymore) tries to take over the town.  The Bailey business seems to be the only one he does not own, and he is willing to do anything to take it over (and in one desperate and despicable scene, I do mean anything).  Through one incident perpetrated by Potter himself, Bailey and his business reach a point of financial ruin, which builds to a crescendo of absolute despair for the hapless Bailey. 

For what itís worth, the light-hearted spirit and tone of the film gives way to its dark and somewhat bleak third act, where George, feeling so broken down, contemplates suicide.  Before he can, he is saved by a mysterious man named Clarence (the lovable Henry Travers) who tries to show how ďwonderfulĒ life is for George.  George remains skeptical, so much so that Clarence manages to show George what life would actually be like if he had never been born.  I think it's no surprise at all that, in the end, George comes to his senses and the film ends on a scene of overwhelming sentiment and uplifting power, so much so that how anyone could not be reduced to tears is beyond me. 

Itís funny looking back on this film and seeing so many that label it as just a ďChristmas film.Ē  When you step back and look at the film critically in context, itís more a ďmessage filmĒ about the human condition than it is a holiday film.  What it does - and does so effectively - is use Christmas as an emotional backdrop to frame the narrative and themes.  The film is an enriching and emotional experience not only because it takes place at the most loved time of year, but more because it pulls at our heartstrings by presenting to us the brightest and darkest aspects of the human psyche.  When we meet George Bailey he is a confident and kind man, willing to do anything for anybody.  Near the end of the film we see him at his absolute lowest point, where he becomes such an atheist to the goodness of the world and society that he begins to lose his faith in that society and those he has touched around him.  Címon, who has not felt that way before?  This ideology  brings us to the essence of the film.  It works on us because we are as much the everyman as George Bailey.  We relate so much to him as a character that when he does hit rock bottom, we really feel for him. 

Capra may have been a genius at crafting this melodramatic fantasy, but he was also gifted at casting.  Jimmy Stewart was never better than he was as Bailey and he plays so role so low key and with such a disarming charisma.  Thereís no denying the likeability of Bailey and I think thatís why he remains one of cinemaís most engrossing and cherished of characters.  His persona became more than just a small man of simple pleasures and ideals; he has become synonymous with the epitome of small-town American values.  In a way, he is one of cinemaís greatest heroes in the sense that he reaches out and touches the lives of so many, often with something as subtle as a polite smile, a handshake, or a caring and understanding ear.  George Bailey is the kind of person we all wish we were, and his perseverance as an iconic image of this universal and elemental vision of the goodness of the common man is one of the filmís most gratifying elements.   

So much of ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE is memorable.  Some films have a few great scenes; Capraís has dozens, often that work on so many diverse levels.  The ending needs no more exploration than was already given, but I also liked how touching some of the other more less obvious moments were, like the moonlight stroll that George and his high school sweetheart Mary (played memorably by Donna Reed) take, or the slapstick antics of that occur at the high school dance they go to.  There are also the scenes where George saves his brother, and one terrifying moment where George, as a boy, tries to tell his drunken boss, a pharmacist, of his ill-calculated prescriptions. 

However, two scenes in particular still remain as some of cinemaís finer moments.  One occurs in during a phone conversation where an angry George and Mary become hopelessly drawn to one another (Itís one of the cinema's all-time great love scenes).  The other moment occurs where George, completely beside himself, down on his luck, and in a drunken fit of absolute desperation, pitifully and quietly prays to God for guidance.  If you want to see film acting done as well as it ever has, watch Stewart in that heart wrenching moment.  It's one of the cinema's great scenes of isolation and inner helplessness.

For a film that Frank Capra never intended to be seen as a ďChristmas movie," ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE remains the definitive Christmas film.  Itís a joyous story of ďfeel goodĒ sentiment at its finest, and in our cynical and contemporary mindset that is, unfortunately, a hard pill for some to swallow.  Yet, the film remains great despite its clichťs and powerful despite its warmness and overt cheerfulness.  It accomplishes what great films do: they become transcending.  They work on more strong and visceral levels.  ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE is one of the great populist fables because, at its core, its about us.  The film is a celebration of the lives of the common and ordinary citizen and how, despite all of the negative that can be thrown at them, they still are able to do the right things to help themselves and those around them, despite enormous obstacles.  ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE is a two hour love sonnet of the average man, and thatís why I think its has endured as one of the most loved films of the last 60 years.  Modern films only wish they could successfully marry the ideals and values together into something meaningful that Capraís film has.

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