“It’s a Wonderful Life”: Is the Movie Just As Wonderful?

It’s a Wonderful Life: “(A) 1946 box-office disappointment that has become the most well-loved of all Christmas movies.” (Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune)

It’s a Wonderful Life: “(A) terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.” (Wendell Jamieson, New York Times)

Is It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) really worth seeing again and again? Well, it all depends on one’s viewpoint.

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 (Donna Reed, in her first starring role), 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 (even his face seems to darken, although it’s still nice and pink in the colorized version). 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 Interesting History About the Film

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

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, when it was released in 1946: “…(T)he weakness of this picture…is the sentimentality of it—its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra’s nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities. And Mr. Capra’s ‘turkey dinners’ philosophy, while emotionally gratifying, doesn’t fill the hungry paunch.”

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.”

Dr. Deborah Khoshaba (Psychology in Everyday Life): “Acceptance points us to our true living purpose. Your true purpose resides in the facts of your life, rather than in your achievements or hopes and dreams.”

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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