AFI Countdown Challenge #11: It’s A Wonderful Life

Until recently, my students were surprised I had never seen The Sound of Music before I started this project.  Then, well, some were surprised I’d never seen It’s a Wonderful Life.  I have no real  reason why.  Due to a mistake in securing a copyright or some such, the film used to play on every possible channel during the Christmas holidays.  I still somehow never saw it.  That said, does anyone not know the most famous part of this film’s plot, how one George Bailey wishes he’d never been born and his guardian angel Clarence shows him how differently the world would have turned out if that had happened?  That concept is probably second only to parodies of A Christmas Carol in terms of how often other movies and TV shows appropriate the concept for a Christmas story.  My personal favorite is probably when Married…with Children did it and Al Bundy learned how everyone’s life would be so much better if he’d never been born and decides to go back simply to spite his awful family.  But no, I’d never seen the original until now.

I was probably too busy with other Christmas movies, like Die Hard.

And so, let me say this much:  I did not like It’s a Wonderful Life all that much.  Oh, there’s nothing technically wrong with it.  The acting is fine, the directing works, and there’s nothing to the film that would make me think “This is bad.”  No, it’s more of just how sentimental, for lack of a better word, the thing is.  Back in the entry for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I noted that director Frank Capra is generally known for an “Americana” style of storytelling, projecting not so much an America that is or was, but one we wish existed, but there is also a dark underbelly to his work that he flirts with a bit before pulling away at the last second.  For Mr. Smith, the overt sentimentality was saved for the title character.  Jefferson Smith is a gosh, golly, gee whiz newly appointed Senator who actually sightsees the famous Washington-area monuments when he first arrives in town and manages to filibuster his way to victory against greedy and cynical people all around him.  That worked well for Jimmy Stewart, and his George Bailey has similar innocent determination and goodness about him for the most part.  The big difference between Mr. Smith and It’s a Wonderful Life is that for the latter film takes all the former’s dark elements and fuses them into the single character of Mr. Potter.

Yeah, everyone loves George Bailey.  He may want to get the heck out of Bedford Falls, the sort of small town where nothing really happens, but it sure does seem like a nice place full of nice folks.  You can apparently get a decent house for $5,000.  Sure, that’s probably what was normal for 1946 in some places, but I’d love to get a good house for that kind of money in 2018.  The opening minutes show that, apparently, everyone in Bedford Falls is praying for George Bailey.  Given why George is considering suicide later due to that idiot Uncle Billy, I’d have to wonder why everyone is praying since no one else really knew what was wrong.  But man, how good a town does it have to be to see people praying for a banker?  That’s what George is, right?

So, after cutting to a couple of vaguely Christian stars talking about how to help George Bailey when, you know, there are probably people much worse off than him at that moment, we get a good series of flashbacks detailing George’s life, how he saved his brother from drowning and another little boy from an accidental poisoning by a distraught pharmacist who somehow gave a 12 year old kid a job, to how he eventually romanced his beloved Mary (Donna Reed), had some kids, sparred with the Evil Mr. Potter, and then finally, with about a half hour left to the film, made the wish to see what life would be like if he’d never been born.  Random coincidences and a strong conscience kept him from actually leaving town, even for his honeymoon, as his money and attention is always needed at the Savings and Loan his father started and his Uncle Billy apparently can’t keep open by himself.  And true, Mary doesn’t mind, even buying an old house what they once used for a bizarre custom of making wishes by breaking windows.

How does that work?  Random vandalism grants wishes?

And after all that, after George wonders aloud in front of his children why he had to have so many of them (not cool, dude), he makes his famous wish and sees that apparently, George Bailey is the one thing keeping Bedford Falls from becoming East Las Vegas.  Somehow, people are worse without him.  I can buy, up to a point, that his never being born could do many of those things.  He didn’t save his brother, so his brother couldn’t be a war hero.  He couldn’t help people find nice homes, so many of them still live in Potter’s slums.  But why is everyone nastier?  This town was the sort of syrupy sweet that could give a man diabetes if he isn’t careful, and then this happens because George isn’t there?

And then when he sees Mary is…gasp!…the town librarian, what jumped out at me the most?

Mary needs glasses if George was never born.

Is his presence improving her eyesight?

And how old is she if she’s considered an “old maid” in the new timeline?

And why can’t George figure things out after the first couple surprises.  Does Clarence stutter?

Look, I get why this film is a Christmas classic.  Most holiday movies go for sentiment over complexity.  But I think I also see why this film was something of a flop when it first came out.  It wasn’t terrible, and there were other films in the Countdown, including one still to come, that I want to watch less than this one, but dammit, this one was a little too sweet for my liking.

NEXT UP:  It’s the last film on the list I have never seen before, and quite frankly, I don’t know a damn thing about the story beyond the title song when it comes to the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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