“It’s a Wonderful Life”: Past and Present Views of the Film

Is It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), with one of its themes suicidality, really worth seeing again and again? It was panned from some of the major film critics of its time and bombed at the box office, yet it’s still going strong on our TV sets.

The Plot

As summarized by the late Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com, It’s a Wonderful Life “works like a strong and fundamental fable, sort of a ‘Christmas Carol’ in reverse: Instead of a mean old man being shown scenes of happiness, we have a hero who plunges into despair.”

The hero, of course, is George Bailey (James Stewart), a man who never quite makes it out of his quiet birthplace of Bedford Falls. As a young man he dreams of shaking the dust from his shoes and traveling to far-off lands, but one thing and then another keeps him at home — especially his responsibility to the family savings and loan association, which is the only thing standing between Bedford Falls and the greed of Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the avaricious local banker.
George marries his high school sweetheart… settles down to raise a family, and helps half the poor folks in town buy homes where they can raise their own. Then, when George’s absentminded uncle (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces some bank funds during the Christmas season, it looks as if the evil Potter will have his way after all. George loses hope and turns mean… He despairs, and is standing on a bridge contemplating suicide when an Angel 2nd Class named Clarence (Henry Travers) saves him and shows him what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without him.

In the Unlikely Event You’ve Never Seen the Movie, Here’s a Trailer:

Some Modern Views About the Film

Ben Walters, Time Out“…the only Yuletide favourite to pivot around an attempted suicide.”

Gina Barreca, Psychology Today, notes that Bailey “realizes with misery and terror” that his wife (Donna Reed) would be single–and a librarian–had he never been born. “He concludes, therefore, that his life was meaningful, if only because he saved people from death, ruin, and the sheer misery of a single woman who is perpetually in circulation.”

George Michelsen Foy, Psychology Today, states that It’s a Wonderful LIfe “…was suspected by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of constituting ‘communist’ propaganda—though it was subsequently cleared. The movie reflects its time in other ways as well. The only African-American character in Capra’s film is a maid; women are mostly subservient housewives; the economic ideal it strives for is some kind of amorphous, semi-Christian charity.”

Some of the Film’s Themes and Messages

Rich Cohen, Salon, calls it “the most terrifying movie ever” and describes the gist of the movie as “the good man driven insane.”

George Michelson Foy, Psychology Today, admits that although he rewatches it regularly, he has to ask himself: “How can I be moved by a film that, in my view, so grievously misrepresents the truth?…In the film, George Bailey saves his bank and the town. In the real world, I would argue, Potter is winning.” 

Stanton Peele, Psychology Today, points out that what Clarence’s refocusing does to save George is what cognitive behavioral therapy can do for the rest of us.

…George returns home with a new appreciation for the small things around him – even the disappointments and stressors – as well as for his loved ones. This is the kind of awakening people often report after they nearly die. If only we could help depressed people crystalize such realizations without having them face death, then we’d have a therapy!
And we do. CBT helps people to learn these cognitive lessons so that they can create for themselves the same magic that Clarence performed for George. And Clarence’s demonstration of CBT is why ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ has stayed with us for what seems like, well, an eternity.

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