Classics Revisited: It’s a Wonderful Life

This is a bit of an experiment on my behalf, I’m terrible at self-assigned deadlines as we all know, but I’d like to hope I can keep up with a theme I really enjoy! This week I’ll be humourously reviewing one of my favourite classics, It’s a Wonderful Life, focusing on themes and points I’ve never considered before. Up next I’ve got His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story planned as well as a few classics I’ve somehow never seen before.

First up? Frank Capra’s sentimental masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life.

This heartwarming holiday story is really about a man pushed to the edge and considering suicide. This after living a life where he gave everything he had to others, only to see it blow up in his face. And honestly? It’s not the first thing that I might have thought of as a Christmas classic. For a film that I often hear people passing over as mushy and sentimental, it’s a dark tale about life’s disappointments and misfortunes, as experienced by the moralistic everyman George Bailey.

I’ve watched this film at least once or twice a year for some time now, so I had assumed I’d seen everything it had to offer, but once again I was proven wrong. Also, as the years roll by, I notice my understanding and empathy levels change, I notice different characters and the struggles they undergo, I relate differently to people and I appreciate the story more.

The Children
But let’s start at the beginning. The charming young actor who plays young George Bailey gets me every time. Sweet, motivated and caring, he really does a job making you connect to George as an adult. Because, let’s be honest, the first time you see early 20-something George he’s a bit annoying, as only a young man cooped up at home can be. Also, the young actresses who play Violet and Mary offer more than I noticed before too, Violet, even at a young age, fawning over what a great catch he is, to Mary, sweet and warm to George and legs open, aggressive and hostile to Violet. It’s adorable and it’s telling. The two have no other negative interactions in the film, so I never saw it as a comment on women fighting over men. They simply play a fantastic role in warming us up to the adult versions of their characters, particularly Violet’s.
Adult Violet resonated with me more, this time around, she’s truly a kindred spirit to George I realized. She wants to leave Bedford Falls and strike out on her own, but doesn’t quite know the way. I do love their first on-screen adult interaction that we witness however, “This old thing? I only wear this when I don’t care how I look!” Pure Violet!

George Bailey & His Dreams
It’s clear that on this viewing, I focused more on the themes and emotions of George Bailey. His internalization of all the monetary problems around his family, the fragility of the Building & Loans and his town and how he puts himself forward, often without taking any heed for himself. He suffers from an adventurer’s mind but a small-town heart, inspired by stories and his friends who are all staking claim for themselves. It’s a struggle that many of us face, whether to stay close to home or fly as far from the nest as we can. I think this time, I really understood his predicament. His own strengths and skill really situation him in his town but he doesn’t want to admit it. There’s some form of defeat in George, he doesn’t appreciate his own worth, that is, until it’s all taken away.

I think one of the most dramatic things I witnessed this time around was the literal destruction of his dreams. In the scene where he snaps at his children after the money goes missing, yelling at Janie to stop playing the piano, he turns to the corner and breaks some models and objects. Previously I thought he was breaking his children’s art projects, so I just thought he was being cruel. But I paused the film at this moment only to realize the items he broke were his own. A scale model of a bridge, a tall building and other architectural designs litter the corner of this room and are only in view for a second. He destroys them, apologizes to his family and then runs off.

One thing I took for granted before was Mr. Potter. I was struck in this rewatching by the moment he decides to fight dirty, even illegally to strike a blow at the Building & Loans. In all their previous entanglements, Potter was acting within his full legal rights. Smarmy but untouchable. When he finds Uncle Billy’s deposit, (that Uncle Billy fully leaves in a burst of pride, spite and misdirected vengeance) his subsequent mockery of George and his phone call, he transforms from an unapologetic curmudgeon into a cruel criminal conspirator.

Grain of Salt
Every time I watch this film, I feel the morals and lessons need to be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, George wasn’t around to save Harry or stop Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning those children, or around to take Mary for a spin on the dance floor, but who’s to say that the person in his place instead (another boy on the ice, another clerk for Mr. Gower or one of the MANY men mentioned who were interested in Mary) wouldn’t do that instead? I’m always a bit nonplussed when they show spinster Mary, she was lauded as having men falling all around her, Sam Wainwright, the guys at the dance, why would a lack of one boy in town drag her down so? My partner had a comment, that perhaps she shone because she truly found a good man to love in George and was always pining for him, but I don’t think that’s enough reason. It still irks me every time.

But when it comes down to it? This film still makes me cry, every time. Religious and moral lessons aside, “Life is only what you put into it” reigns supreme. Don’t judge yourself by your material wealth but from the value from your family and friends, and in George Bailey’s world? By the love of a town that comes together to save the man who made them all feel worthy. I love this movie.

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