While debate continues over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, there seems little doubt that the classic film It's a Wonderful Life deserves that classification. The film has long been a staple of TV viewing during the holidays, in part because its copyright protection lapsed in the 1970s and the film entered the public domain. Released in 1947, it has just passed the three-quarter century mark. Yet the film, directed by the great Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, was a box office flop.
We typically remember the film for its ending, with George Bailey holding his daughter in his arms as she remarks, "every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings." That scene and the bumbling angel, Clarence, have made the film seem overly sentimental. Yet It's a Wonderful Life may be the darkest of all Christmas films. George Bailey is a desperate man, who finds himself isolated and lonely, trapped by circumstances beyond his control, where brutal economic forces have put at risk everything that he treasures. In a moment of despair, he tries to kill himself.
It's precisely the gloom of the film that makes it relevant for our time. The parallels are not exact, of course, but Americans suffer increasingly from a lack of belonging, a loneliness, a gnawing sense of isolation. We are connected to fewer friends and family, and depression and suicide are on the rise.
George Bailey is saved from suicidal drowning by the intervention of an angel, who then, after George complains that he wishes he'd never been born, gives George the dubious gift of non-being.
He now inhabits a town that he no longer recognizes as his own, in which he has no place or purpose — a world in which formerly comforting things — friends, family, institutions — now seem alien and hostile.
Isn't that how many Americans now experience their own country? Fewer Americans are hopeful about the future, according to Pew Research, and most see political contests as all-or-nothing wars in which their deepest understanding of their homeland is at risk of being obliterated by the other side. And both sides fear that they are losing the political battle.
Living his whole life in small town Bedford Falls, from which he is eager to escape and explore the wider world, George Bailey, suddenly and through no fault of his own, faces bankruptcy — his livelihood and future now in the hands of the ruthless banker Mr. Potter. That the film features an avaricious and ruthless banker as the bad guy led the FBI to identify the film as a piece of communist propaganda.
Political division and personal loneliness are a potent and demoralizing combination. Of course, the happy ending of the film has much to do with the bonds of a local community, which provide a safety net from financial disaster, and friendships that rescue individuals from social anonymity.
While the film has no sympathy for laissez-faire capitalism, its alternative faith is not in centralized, distant government control, but in local institutions and communities. As head of the local building and loan that he inherits from his father, George sees his role as helping members of his community achieve their share in the American dream. From his experience of what the town would have been like without him there, he realizes that his life made a huge difference for the good of others in his community. At the end of the film, the community comes to his aid, with both funds and affection. That sense of the local community as a buffer against tragedy and as providing a sense of belonging has also dissipated in America.
But the key scene, and the one that defines it as a Christmas film, precedes George Bailey being given his life back and running through the town jubilantly shouting "Merry Christmas," is one of the most heart-wrenching in the history of film.
Alone at a bar, George admits he's not a praying man but that he desperately needs God's help. Of that scene, Stewart later said:
"As I said those words, I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer, the realization that our father in heaven is there to help the hopeless, had reduced me to tears."
That's the prayer answered in this season of gifts, and the reason It's a Wonderful Life is such a powerful Christmas film.