It's a Wonderful Life

Today, I'm reviewing It's a Wonderful Life (1946), a classic Christmas movie that I think avid cinephiles will love.

This article is part of the A Movie Gift to You blogathon hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog

Are you an avid cinephile? Are you a devotee of the works of Ozu, Bergman, and Fellini? Do you have a Criterion Collection corner in your house? I'm here today to seriously recommend the grandaddy of all Christmas movies, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), for your viewing pleasure. This holiday classic is often remembered as sentimental mush about angels getting their wings, but it is also one of cinema's "great movies" in every sense of the term. It's a Wonderful life is a noir-inspired movie that deals with the anxieties and prejudices in small-town America, and the darkness at the heart of the American dream.

It's a Wonderful Life follows the life story of George Bailey (James Stewart) a genial man who was born and raised in the small town of Bedford Falls. George dreams of a life of travel and adventure, but he is forced to stay in Bedford Falls and work at his family's building and loan because of his responsibility to his widowed mother (Beulah Bondi) and wife (Donna Reed) and four children. One day, a mishap with the building and loan's cash threatens to close the business and ruin George and his family forever. Near despair on Christmas Eve, George contemplates suicide only to be saved by a very unusual angel (Henry Travers), who shows him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.

It's a Wonderful Life is based on an unpublished story by Philip Van Doren Stern. RKO Pictures executives bought the rights to the story for $10,000 as a vehicle for their leading star, Cary Grant, but Grant passed on the offer after three unsuccessful attempts to write an acceptable script (Grant was known to be fussy and often turned down good material, but I think he was right in this case. He would have been terribly miscast as George Bailey). 

The script eventually landed in the lap of director Frank Capra, who decided to make it the first movie for his independent production company, Liberty Films. It's a Wonderful Life was a modest box-office success (it wasn't a flop as has been widely reported), and it did receive critical praise and attention during awards season. It's a Wonderful Life was on many critic's top 10 lists, Capra won best director at the Golden Globes, and the film received five Academy Awards nominations including best picture and best actor for Stewart.

Gloria Grahame as Violet Bick in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
However, It's a Wonderful Life didn't make enough money to keep Liberty Films afloat, and the movie fell into obscurity until it was resurrected by frequent showings on TV. It's a Wonderful Life was in the public domain, which meant that stations didn't have to pay a fee to air it, so it was endlessly repeated during the Christmas season, as anyone over 40 knows (the Liberty Films bell-ringing logo, which opens the movie, is burned into my brain).

Today, It's a Wonderful Life has a firm foothold in American popular culture right next to other old Hollywood staples like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Sound of Music (1965). Of course, many people love it, but it's also become a bit of Rorschach Test with some praising it as the epitome of wholesome American values, while others deride the movie as sentimental mush.

Like many great movies, It's a Wonderful Life is all of those things and none of them at the same time. It is undeniably a great work of art -- the stylish noir-inspired cinematography by Joseph Walker is reason enough to watch this film -- but this movie gives us more to contemplate than a great look.

 It's a Wonderful Life deals with the anxieties of postwar America, which are portrayed by Stewart in a performance with a surprising amount of edge. Stewart is often remembered as a genial guy with an aw-shucks drawl, but his screen persona is much more complicated than that. Throughout It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is at times sarcastic, dismissive and downright mean, especially to his wife and children, and that's before he has the huge meltdown that everyone remembers. In fact, Stewart's performance here leads directly into his complex roles of the 1950's in Alfred Hitchcock thrillers and Anthony Mann Westerns.

Karolyn Grimes and James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
It's a Wonderful Life is also one of the most deftly plotted of old Hollywood films. The first part of the movie, which tells George Bailey's life story, is a slow and deliberate set-up for the nail-biting finale. Many people give up on the movie because of the plodding first half, but that's a mistake. All of those seemingly insignificant details lead to the one of  the most brilliant and unusual finales in American films. George has been granted his wish that he never be born, and now he wanders the streets of Bedford Falls in increasingly isolated desperation.

Finally, It's a Wonderful Life is a movie filled with genuine emotion. Many people, who only remember Stewart's tear-stained face in the finale, dismiss It's a Wonderful Life as sentimental mush, but the movie's emotions are honestly earned. Our hipster entertainment culture is so suffused with irony that sometimes, it's good to be reminded that life is a wonderful gift, and it's our choice to make the most of it. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family! I hope you'll give It's a Wonderful Life a chance.

It's a Wonderful Life will air at 8 p.m. Christmas Eve on NBC. It is also available on DVD, Blu ray, and video on demand.

Click here, for articles from my past blogathons.


  1. I must sheepishly confess that this is not my favorite Xmas movie (sorry, folks!), but you did an excellent critique of it. I quite agree with you that Cary Grant would have been miscast in the lead. I also like that you noted how George Bailey is not quite as saintly as people have remembered, and that you noted its film-noir elements (quite obvious in the extended scene where George has been "forgotten"). Excellent blog, and thanks for contributing to the blogathon!

    1. Thanks for hosting! It's a great idea for a blogathon, and I had fun writing the article.

  2. You know this film is one of those that is easy to get into the habit of "not liking" but it is a tremendous film. I had to grow up before I could appreciate it! I finally got it a few years ago and has become an all-time favorite. Excellent choice and very nicely written! Happy Holidays!

    1. Yes, the older I get the more I appreciate this movie. It takes some life experience to understand George Bailey's desperation.

      Happy Holidays to you!

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