The quintessential Christmas classic, It's A Wonderful Life has dominated the holiday TV landscape with its timeless story of love, friendship, and a kind man's exceedingly relevant life. Filmed in 1947, this Frank Capra masterpiece debuted in theaters to what could best be described as a lukewarm reception. Yet it quickly rose in stature following repeated annual television airings in the 1960s, a Christmas tradition that continues to this day. Centered around the life of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a likeable, ambitious resident of Bedford Falls who harbors dreams of grandeur, the film sets out to portray a viewpoint of a world in which the divine's ultimate plan may be far different from our own. Yet the result of that plan is far better than we could ever imagine.
As the film begins, we gain a glimpse into the life and times of a young George Bailey, an upstanding and studious fellow who manages to avert two potential disasters by the age of ten. Under the employ of neighborhood druggist Mr. Gower, Bailey prevents the delivery of a poison prescription, and while enjoying the boyhood wonders of the local ice pond, he rescues his younger brother from certain death by pulling him from a patch of broken ice.
From these early years, the story jumps several years into the future, where a grown up and infectiously optimistic George harbors wild dreams of world travel, exploration, and the construction of large buildings. But inevitably, he stays in Bedford Falls in order to carry on the family business, the small yet popular Bailey Savings & Loan (the only financial institution in Bedford Falls not owned by the unmerciful tycoon Mr. Potter). As the years pass, Bailey must deal with his own family problems, his unfulfilled dreams, and the burdens of the Great Depression. Along the way, he's tempted with offers of vast wealth and travel opportunities by the conniving Potter, but he always turns him down, opting to work for the benefit of the community instead.
However when a seemingly innocent snafu threatens to bring down Bailey Savings & Loan, George ponders the unthinkable. He questions his very existence and the true worth of his life. Disillusioned by feelings of failure and a pessimistic outlook for the future, he fails to see the true value of his life. In the end, only divine intervention and the warm hearts of the people of Bedford Falls can transform George's outlook and force to him to recognize the extraordinary life he's lived.
The innate power of It's A Wonderful Life stems from the strength of numerous performances, most notably that of Jimmy Stewart. Much like Tom Hanks today, Stewart played the role of the everyman during his long tenure in Hollywood. He may have lacked the sex appeal of Clark Gabel or the cowboy virility of John Wayne, but he fit perfectly in the mold of best friend and loveable guy. In a feel-good, fairy tale film like this one, Stewart is cast perfectly, and he's well complemented by a host of others. Who else could play the role of the grumpy miser any better than Lionel Barrymore? All in all, it's a recipe for silver screen excellence.
It's A Wonderful Life illuminates an almost magical setting with its idyllic portrayal of Depression-era, small-town America. Each character (with the exception of Mr. Potter), harkens back to a simpler time when public attitudes toward morality prevailed, where neighbors knew each other by name, and where communities helped each other out. Further strengthening the allure of the film, George Bailey and his friends are likeable characters who develop a strong rapport with the audience, forcing the viewer to actively root for the desired outcome. It's this personal connection with the audience (and an audience ability to relate to the overriding themes) which is the key to the enduring success of this film. Having spent over five decades as America's most popular Christmas movie, It's A Wonderful Life deserves mention among the ranks of the all-time classics of cinema.
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