It’s Christmas Eve, which gives me an excuse to write about what I consider cinema’s greatest Christmas movie: Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a variation of the archetypal Christmas story, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Both feature extraterrestrial spirits. Scrooge is shown how the world will become if he doesn’t change. George is shown how the world would have been if he weren’t in it. Each protagonist emerges with a life-affirming vision of the world.
We associate Capra with sappy sentimentality, and even during his day people applied the phrase “capra-corn” to his movies. But a story that my father tells me about my grandfather (who died before I was born) gets me to think twice about that assessment.
The two of them attended the film when it came out in 1946, my father just back from World War II. Midway through the film, my grandfather declared it too dark and they left.
We are so struck by Jimmy Stewart’s upbeat personality and the final gathering around the Christmas tree that we forget that It’s a Wonderful Life contains a suicide attempt. The very title is part of an expression that signifies, not exuberant celebration, but grim hanging on: “It’s a wonderful life if you don’t weaken.” Note how visually dark the film is, much closer to 1940’s film noir than 1930’s MGM light and air.
It’s not at all surprising that the film is dark. Both Capra and Jimmy Stewart were heavily involved in the war, Capra having witnessed the carnage in the Soviet Union, Stewart having flown as a bomber pilot. Both men returned feeling shaken, and war veterans’ emotions show up in the film: for instance, Stewart yells at his family, feels suffocated, and attempts suicide. No wonder that my grandfather, a man with a sunny disposition, walked out.
But the darkness is an essential part of the film’s power. The magic of Christmas is that it comes at the darkest time of year. The darker the film, the more miraculous the ending.
All the Christmas classics have comparable darkness: the different versions of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (the 1951 version especially), the 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis (which I have written on here), the 1983 Christmas Story (filled with stories of childhood trauma), the 2005 Family Stone (with the mother dying of cancer).
As I think about my grandfather’s life, I have another theory about why he walked out of It’s a Wonderful Life. My great-grandfather was a Chicago lawyer who determined that his son would enter into the family firm. My grandfather studied the law with him as an adolescent and then jumped over college, going straight into Northwestern Law School. My father always thought grandfather would have liked being a literature teacher as he loved Dickens, Scott, and other Victorian authors. In fact, to compensate for not being able to go to college, he built up a large collection of Victorian classics, which are now in my father’s house.
So I wonder if the plight of George Bailey cut a little too close to home. After all, George is forced into the family business. No matter how hard he struggles to break free, he is always pulled back into it.
There’s another detail that further emphasizes parallels. My grandfather, like George, dreamed of travel. My grandfather compensated by becoming an ardent stamp collector.
I’m sorry that my grandfather didn’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life to its end. He might have found his own life affirmed by the film’s conclusion. By all reports, the world was a better place with my grandfather in it, and there was even an Evanston Park named after him. I wish I had known him.
We each of have the potential to be George Bailey in each of our communities. Yes, despite the dark times, it is a wonderful life.