It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Well, that’s a big gap in my classic Hollywood knowledge finally filled (not to mention several Simpsons references clarified). It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t seem to have become the Christmas TV classic in this country that it’s been in the US since the 70s, so I’ve kind of missed out on it, plus to be honest I’ve never actually gone out of my way to watch it (indeed, I kind of went out of my way to avoid it last Christmas when it was on ABC1). I don’t know why, maybe because of that sentimental Christmas classic reputation. Now that I’ve actually watched it, I’m not only perplexed by the badness of some of the editing in the film (if it’s bad enough that I notice it, it’s bad all right, and I was stunned to see some of those clangers in a Hollywood film of that vintage), but by that very reputation; like Capra’s earlier Meet John Doe, the crisis point of the narrative comes on Christmas Eve, but the earlier film never became a festive season classic like this did… While there’s an undeniable vein of sentimentality running through the thing, I was surprised to find it actually is as dark as some reviewers have observed (cf. here, here and here). Just look at George Bailey, all of whose attempts to escape his humdrum little home town of Bedford Falls over the years fail and amount to a life full of frustration and difficulty and the repression of a bit of a cruel streak we see early on; he has to do things with his life he never wanted to do. No fucking wonder he blows up on that fateful Christmas Eve when the last straw makes contact with the camel’s back. It’s a really good film, but I couldn’t have been more wrong when I once called it “Frank Capra’s beloved chunk of Christmas cheer”; only a complete idiot and/or someone who hadn’t seen the film (I was the latter when I called it that, maybe the former too) could characterise it that way.

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One thought on “It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

  1. DS October 25, 2012 at 1:44 am

    This was, for a time, a “Christmas film” in the US – I remember a number of years when it was on for days, even weeks, at any hour. I think that was the 1990’s? Apparently, whoever owned the rights allowed it to be played like an infomercial – later, I believe I heard that the rights to the film were purchased and now indiscriminate Christmastime playing of the film on US tv has ceased.

    I love this film – it’s a film about hope, and above all about redemption. In that sense, there is in my view a deeply Christian message to this film (though the word “Christian” has been almost utterly hijacked by right-wing ideologues in the US). There is also a very distinct moderate left-wing populist political message throughout the fim – which is extremely important to note as this was at the very end of the New Deal years and just before McCarthyism (right-wing repression of political dissent) rose in tandem with a post-war/permanent-war economy.

    I believe there really was a small-town America like this, because I grew up in small-town America. Of course this is an idealized, romantic portrayal, but there is or at least once was an America in which goodheated small-town people really do and did make positive differences in the lives of others and of each other. The disgusting thing is that not only do these local heroisms not make it on the national news, today the local news is a string of ambulance-chasing videos of crime scenes, home fires, and car accidents.

    It’s easy to be cynical. Thanks to Frank Capra for not having been so in this film.

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