It’s a Wonderful Life

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Now, here’s a thing – well two actually.  By the time you read this it will be December and less than a month to Christmas. Also, we have not had a film review for some time.  So, of course, it’s time to review ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946) as I promised I would some time ago.  Cards on the table – I have watched this film every Christmas for the last 30 years and intend to do so again this year.  Be warned this article is slightly longer than most I do!

My children all grew up with it, and perhaps like me can name all the characters, remember all the key scenes and quote the most memorable dialogue  – Don’t hit my sore ear Mr Gower, my sore ear.  You put something wrong in those capsules, Mr Gower, you didn’t mean to but you did….I know why you’re upset Mr Gower, you got the telegram and you’re upset.  Don’t hit my sore ear again’. (It’s a 1946 film and most people will have seen it, so I am not worrying about spoilers!)

The film starts in heaven but is basically the life story of a small town businessman, George Bailey (played by James Stewart) and his life in Bedford Falls.  George’s life is a mixture of happiness, good deeds and frustration. His desire to go to college, ‘learn how to build things’ and then be a globe-trotting construction magnate is frustrated at every turn.  He works at the family-run ‘Building and Loan Company’ whilst his younger brother Harry gets to go to college. Then, when his turn comes, his father dies and the board of directors agree to keep the Building and Loan going only if George agrees to be chief executive in his father’s place. The looming close-up of the camera on his face at this point emphasises George’s sense of entrapment at this announcement.

And so, George never leaves Bedford Falls and never gets to build the major projects he had set his heart on. Even his honeymoon abroad is stymied when they use his savings to keep the Building and Loan open when there is a run on the bank.   There are compensations – his lovely, loving and always cheerful wife, Mary (played by Donna Reed, a favourite of mine) and four children. Both personally and professionally he goes out of his way to help others and many people’s live are made better because of George.

However, the sense of frustration and lost opportunity never leaves him, and he has a nemesis – ‘Old Mr Potter, the richest man in town’ – the epitome of a greedy, grasping capitalist, determined to own or control everything he can (beautifully played by Lionel Barrymore) .  When George thwarts him once too often he even offers to give him a powerful well-paid job to rid himself of the nuisance. George refuses it, seeing it for the trap it is.

Eventually, though, George falls into Potter’s clutches when his absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell – brilliant as ever) misplaces $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s money. (Every year we find ourselves saying ‘Look out Uncle Billy, don’t do it’).  Faced with ruin George shouts at his children, abuses a teacher on the telephone and abases himself before Potter who takes delight in turning George in to the authorities.  Seeing no way out,  George decides to throw himself off a bridge only to have to dive in and save someone else.  This turns out to be Clarence, an apprentice angel from heaven, sent to be George’s guardian angel at his time of desperate need. Except, Clarence is not very good, and does not yet ‘Have his wings’ – they have to be earned.

Clarence shows George what the town would have been like had he not been born – a sleazy dive full of cheap bars and burlesque shows. Many other lives would have been affected too – his brother Harry would have died in a childhood accident (George saved him) and not have become a fighter pilot and saved thousands of troops on a troopship. Uncle Billy would be truly demented, his mother would have been forced to take in boarders, Mary would have been a sad old maid and so on. George begs to have his old life back and there is a glorious reunion on Christmas Eve as the townspeople flock to the Bailey house to contribute money to bail George out of trouble – they all know he could not have done anything dishonest. And, of course, having succeeded Clarence ‘gets his wings’ – ‘Attaboy Clarence’.

All this and much more in a long, funny, sad, provoking and finally uplifting tale. A flop when it was launched, it has grown in reputation year-on-year mainly through television. (Although when I went to see it at a cinema a few Christmases ago, it was packed out!)

From a Christian point of view, it is problematic on several levels. One Christian film review I read said this:

‘I cannot convey enough how Christian this populist piece is. If ever there was a moment in cinema history where the hand of God and the magic of film combined to form a work of art, this is it’[1].

That seems to me to be just wrong. Not only are there some real oddities in this story (although, angels do appear in scripture, people don’t have ‘guardian angels’ and angels are not – literally – re-cycled medieval cobblers).  Also, whilst George has some sort of awareness of God (he goes to church on special occasions and prays when he is in trouble) he has no real or saving faith in Jesus Christ. In fact the film is essentially ‘Deist’ in nature. That is, a belief in some powerful and benevolent divine being, but no place for a personal saving faith.  This is an old tradition in America where many of the ‘founding fathers,’ Washington and Jefferson amongst them, were Deists not Christians.

The message of the film is much more Humanist than Christian – each person has a part to play it says, and if you are decent and honest and do your best by others then it will benefit them and you.  Moreover, none of us can tell just what the effects might be of all the small acts of human kindness that we carry out.  If we could see those effects ripple out then we might find that like George we’ve ‘had a wonderful life’.

Now, as Christians we are called to serve others as part of our service to Christ but it is noticeable that whilst there is a heavenly intervention, the consequences of George’s action and his redemption are set firmly in this world. A different, and perhaps more interesting film might have seen George’s ruin come to pass, with his consolation being in the knowledge of the righteousness before God and his salvation in Christ.

There is also a much darker interpretation of this film that has emerged in recent times. Essentially, one that says that George is still trapped by his life and that the apparent consolations are no consolation at all.  Mr Potter has not gone away and the Building and Loan Company will eventually fail, built as it is upon rickety foundations. Don’t be fooled it says, thwarted ambitions can never lead to contentment.

Made by the great Frank Capra, it is a wonderful film. I will watch it again this Christmas and I will follow every twist and turn in George’s fortunes. I’ll wince when Mr Gower hits George’s sore ear, laugh at the high school dance scene, hiss whenever Mr Potter is on screen, smile when Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy actually falls over some scenery off-screen (which they incorporated into the actual film), groan at Clarence’s simpleness and cry when they play Auld Lang’s Syne’ on an accordion at the end.  And, almost, I really do hope that ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings’

[1] ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ –