It’s a Wonderful Life is both one of my favorite Christmas films, and one of my favorite films in general. Despite a disappointing response when it was released in 1946, it has become widely acknowledged as a beloved classic. That said, I do think that it is a film with some notable flaws. Structurally, I think it’s a bit of a mess. And second, I think it’s not at all clear whether it delivers on the claim that George Bailey comes to believe he has a wonderful life.
On structure - this year we’ve had two noteworthy films that ably handled telling a story through flashbacks: Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7. When handled well, such a narrative can balance scenes from the past and present against one another, such that past and future events are in dialogue with one another to tell a larger story. In It’s a Wonderful Life, we begin in the present, with an alluded to crisis for an adult character we haven’t met yet, and then spend the next hour of the film in a linear flashback, all to ultimately relate a story that is half the length of the flashback. Additionally, where we inexplicably find ourselves at the beginning of the story is in space, in a conversation between angels represented by talking flickering galaxies - a bold choice of motif, considering we never return to anything like it in the rest of the film.
Part of the structure of the film is somewhat explained by knowing the origin of this story. It’s a Wonderful Life is based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern called: “The Greatest Gift.” The events of that story are largely similar to what is depicted in the last section of the film, while the events of the added flashback portion of the film are mostly invented or expanded to justify George Bailey’s suicidal impulse. Presumably, a film audience would accept a story about someone driving by extraordinary circumstances to contemplate suicide, but not someone merely depressed.
In the short story, we meet a suicidal bank clerk named George Pratt. We never get any insight into what brings him to the bridge he’s planning to jump off of. Part of what makes the story effective is that when a stranger shows him how much worse everybody’s life would be without him, he gains in both self-worth and new purpose. One can take seriously here the state of mind that would bring someone to the plan to end their life, while believing that it might take something miraculous to shake someone from that intention, and that what George Pratt is shown is specifically relevant to the long term causes of his state of mind.
George Bailey’s existential crises aren’t quite the same. Similar to George Pratt, all we know at the top of the film about the character we will come to know as George Bailey, is that he’s discouraged and suicidal. The next hour of the film is spent showing us who he is and how he got to the bridge he’s about to jump off. What we learn about him from watching him grow up in flashbacks is his central want to travel the world, kicking off the dust of small town life, and building big important things. We aren’t shown anything over the course of the movie to indicate that those dreams change as he has aged, but rather that he has been frustrated at every turn by the needs of others.
In turn, we watch George give up the trip he was going to take before college, just so that he can wind up the affairs of his father's estate. He agrees to postpone college as the only way to to keep the Building and Loan open. When Harry comes back from college, George stays on at the Building and Loan so that Harry can take a promising job with his new father-in-law. George and Mary give up their honeymoon trip to stop the run on the Building and Loan, and George turns down the wildly lucrative job with Mr. Potter because of what it would mean for everyone in their town. Over the course of two decades, we watch George Bailey always put the interests of the Building and Loan, and the people of Bedford Falls, ahead of his own, and we watch the way that eats him up.
What’s particularly revealing is what we see happen to George when things begin to fall apart on him, after Uncle Billy loses the bank's money. How we do anything, says something about how we do everything, and when George gets home, he lashes out at everything in his life. He yells at his wife and children, questions why they even need to have so many kids, he berates his daughter’s teacher and her husband over the phone, he destroys his small office space in the corner of the room, and the model of the project he was working on. He’s harder on his family than he is on Uncle Billy, who lost the money that got him into this mess. He’s not just angry about being ruined. He’s angry about the entire course of his life that has brought him to this moment.
The end of the film is incredibly joyous. To see someone in George Bailey, who sacrificed so much for others, be lifted up by his friends in his time of need, has a deeply heart-touching justice to it. George will probably be riding high on the love for him in that moment for quite a while. But, the only substantive change to his life is that the Building and Loan has been made whole. When George Bailey wakes up the next morning, he’ll get to clean up the mess he made of his living room office, he’ll return to the same job from which so much of his frustration stems. All of the friends who came out to help him will return to their lives, much as George will return to his.
It’s worth noting how this story differs from its spiritual predecessor, A Christmas Carol. In that story, the arc of Ebenezer Scrooge is that, through empathy with the plight of others, and fear over how his own life will go, Scrooge becomes a more generous person, and we take that generosity to be the engine of his happiness. What changes for him is the thing that prevented him from being happy in the first place.
We never get the idea that George Bailey’s problem, as it is with George Pratt, is that he is feels under appreciated, such that when all of his friends come to his aid, he discovers he was wrong all along. He’s surely relieved that, because of the good person he has been, the people in his life have come to his aid in his time of need, but that was not the primary engine of his frustration. The anger we see erupt from him under duress is a dissatisfaction with the dreamed of life that never came to be. At the conclusion of the film, he is saved from ruin, but he is returning to the same life that he always had. He has a better sense of just how loved he is, and now he has proof of the existence of angels - which I assume would be a life changing fact to have banging around in one’s head - but narratively the story doesn’t address or engage with our protagonist’s central conflict as it’s set up in the first hour of the film.
It’s possible that my take on It’s a Wonderful Life is that it should only be a half hour long, or that the narrative needs dramatic restructuring to better connect the first hour to the film's ending. At the same time, I recognize that that’s a ridiculous position, because I still do love this movie as it is. Ultimately, despite these quibbles, I fully agree that it is and should be regarded as a classic. I happen to think it is a structurally flawed one, that doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its title, but there are worse things to be. It may not be a wonderful life, but it is still a wonderful film.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.