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It’s a Wonderful Life (review)

Crushing a Classic

I know it’s practically sacrilege to admit such a thing, but I’m not a big fan of It’s a Wonderful Life.

It isn’t a terrible film by any means, and it’s easy to see why people revere it. An ordinary man sees the life of adventure and travel he hoped for constantly thwarted but eventually learns to love the pleasant life he does have. Cherish what you have, is the movie’s message. Count your blessings. Who could argue with those aphorisms?
And that, maybe, is my problem with It’s a Wonderful Life: it’s too easy. Its two main characters — George Bailey (James Stewart: The Greatest Show on Earth) and Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore: You Can’t Take It with You) — are stereotypes, respectively, of the poor, eternally put-upon ordinary guy and the mean-spirited, rich old bastard. The conflicts the film sets up couldn’t be more black-and-white — and I’m not talking about the film stock.

George Bailey may think the deck is heavily stacked against him his entire life, but the audience can see that it isn’t. Sure, everything that can possibly go wrong for poor George does — he’s forced to skip his long-planned summer in Europe, ends up passing up his dreamed-of college career, doesn’t get to have an exciting time during WWII like the other men in his town do (and how likely is that?), and even has to cancel his honeymoon. But he does it all in the cause of the eternal battle his family — which runs the local building and loan society, serving the working-class people of Bedford Falls — has waged against Potter’s bank. Potter, the “richest and meanest man in the county,” is a direct descendant of Ebenezer Scrooge, cutting po’ workin’ folk no slack and constantly on the lookout for a way to buy just about the last thing in Bedford Falls he doesn’t own: Bailey Building & Loan.

George’s suicide attempt, of course, gets him the attention of an angel looking to earn his wings, who shows George what an awful place Bedford Falls would have been if George had never been born. George has his famous change of heart after seeing what a wonderful life he has lead… but something about this has always bothered me, too, and I’ve just realized what it is: George deferred and eventually lost all his dreams in order to help other people fulfill their dreams. A noble cause, surely, and helping others is certainly something we should all be doing… to an extent. But who’s gonna help poor George realize his dreams?

It bothers me, too, that Potter — whose sneaky act is finally what drives George to suicide — gets no comeuppance and suffers no consequences as a result of his contemptible act. Sure, we’re supposed to see Potter as a loser because he has no friends — unlike George, beloved by the entire town — but Potter seems quite happy with himself.

Remember that “alternate ending” of It’s a Wonderful Life that Saturday Night Live came up with years ago? George never finds out what happened to that $8,000 that nearly ruined him, and the film ends on a happy note when the townspeople pitch in to raise the money. SNL‘s ending was a little darker: Someone discovers that Potter has George’s money, and so we’re treated to the spectacle of Dana Carvey as Jimmy Stewart leading a lynch mob: “Well, let’s get ‘im!” Carvey’s George cries. That’s more the ending I’d like to see.

AFI 100: #20
unforgettable movie moment:
What else? The final scene of the film, in which George, despondent and angry, finds his faith in the world renewed by a living room full of friends, returning all the favors he has done them with cash donations.

previous AFI 100 film:
19: On the Waterfront
next AFI 100 film:
21: Chinatown

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb
  • Patrick Dodds

    Don’t worry I’m not going to blast you for your review of It’s a Wonderful Life as you might expect others to. You make some interesting points about the film. I’ll be the first person to admit the film isn’t totally realistic with its black and white morality, but Star Wars was a film just as black and white in its moralizing. “The totally evil empirial government trying to thwart freedom and justice throughout the galaxy is being fought against by a group of rebels driven by 100% good intentions” — how realistic is that (ignoring the sci-fi/fantasy element of it of course)? Yes, Han Solo was kind of a wild card in the first movie until the film’s conclusion, but in the end he joins the Rebel Alliance for totally good-hearted reasons. This fact doesn’t take away from the film’s enjoyable qualities and for me that goes for Its a Wonderful Life too. Both of these film classics are modern fairy tales and that’s what makes them beloved around the world. Besides, in the Star Wars Trilogy evil is punished while the villian in It’s a Wonderful Life gets away with his foul shenanigans. How’s that for realism? Oh well, that’s my two cents. Happy holidays!

    P.S.– Am I the only one who finds it odd that It’s a Wonderful Life, a Christmas movie, ends with a New Year’s song being sung?

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 12.20.99]

  • MaryAnn

    Both films are fantasies, it’s true, but Star Wars speaks to me in a way that Wonderful Life doesn’t.

    As for the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” at the end of Life: it may be considered a New Year’s song, but it’s about remembering old times and old friends, so it seems an appropriate tune for a gathering of George’s old friends to sing, especially when you consider that it’s because they remember all that George has done for them that they’re helping him out in the first place.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 12.20.99]

  • bronxbee

    dear chick: i love the movie It’s a Wonderful Life and while i can absolutely see where you have problems with the various overdone aspects of the film, it is something that spoke particulary, i think to the Boomer generation. perhaps simply because of the exposure from television, but also because they benefited from the post-war boom and never felt that materialism is enough. i truly think this is an instance where “generational” outlook makes a difference between a “hokey” movie and a “pointed fable.”

    however, mainly i have to tell you about an error in fact [in the Point/Counterpoint article at the Online Film Critics Society]. when referring to the rich man with the car and the new young wife, you are mixing up George Bailey’s brother, Harry Bailey, with Sam Wainwright, the well-to-do, young man about town. Sam had been courting Mary in the earlier part of the movie and also offers George the chance to go into the “plastics” business with him. it is Sam Wainwright who appears at Baily Park (“hee haw”) with his young wife and flash car when the Martinis are moving into their new home.

    Harry Baily does comes home from college with his wife and a good job offer (small to start but with the opportunity to go far), but he does not actually reappear in the movie until the very end when he flies in from Washington to make the toast to his big brother at the end. Sam Wainwright is also the rich man who wires from London that he authorizes his bank to advance George Bailey up to $25,000 on his word alone. he is a rich man who does not forget his friends or where he came from.

    i just had to tell you that, because it does sort of weaken, a bit, your section of the argument about money and goodness. Sam Wainwright is not the most loveable or the most prominent character in the move, but he does play an important part in balancing some of the rich/poor elements.

    otherwise, enjoyed your reviews (as always) and the “Point/Counter-Point” column even more than usual.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 12.20.99]

  • Patrick Lauder

    My personal feelings about It’s a Wonderful Life aside, you made a MAJOR mistake in your column, and according to the points you made, it heavily influenced your impressions of the movie.

    You claim that George Bailey’s brother Harry came home from college, stepped off the train, and introduced George and Uncle Billy to his new wife…. but then showed up years later at Bailey Park in a fancy car with a DIFFERENT wife. This is absolutely FALSE. [Patrick goes on to detail my error, but as it is explained above, I don't see the need to repeat it. --MaryAnn]

    By the way, thanks to your persuasive positive comments on Meet John Doe, I plan on renting soon. Perhaps it will become my SECOND favorite movie of all time. Can you guess the FIRST? :-)

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 12.20.99]

  • MaryAnn

    Thanks for your comments. Others have pointed out my mistake as well. I can’t say, though, that this alters my opinion of the film too much. No, I should say: Just as my objections to Julia Roberts have more to do with how her fans see her than with the woman herself, my big problems with It’s a Wonderful Life has more to do with how revered it is than anything with the movie in and of itself.

    I hope you enjoy Meet John Doe!

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 12.20.99]

  • zuzu22@webtv.net

    I read the discussion [about It's a Wonderful Life] between you and Dan, and it seems that you both need to watch the film again. In the scene you refer to that takes place in Bailey Park, the man in the new car with the different woman is NOT Harry Bailey. [Again, I've snipped the details. --MaryAnn] My take on the movie, which I have seen at least 20 times, is this: No matter how insignificant you might think you or the things you do are, you can and do make a big difference in the lives of others, sometimes without even knowing it. This movie has been a large source of inspiration for me, and has caused me to do more, to try to be a better person, to think about how my actions will affect others and act accordingly. I suggest you watch it again, with less cynicism, and see the REAL message it sends.

    [originally posted to FlickFilosopher.com 12.20.99]

  • Henry McClaine

    It seems odd to critique a movie based mostly upon your feelings towards other people’s critiques of it. Shouldn’t you let the film speak for itself? As for your two major issues with the flick:

    1. it is a rather bold message: altruism and self-sacrifice > following your dreams. For every thirty or forty Disney-ish movies about a young figure skater/ballerina/dancer/whatever deciding to follow his/her dreams and not let any thing or one stand in his/her way, there’s a film with a message/moral core more closely aligned with the one found in It’s A Wonderful Life. I think the people who revere the film probably do so because they find strong elements of their own belief system (not necessarily a religious belief system [though I'm sure being Christian helps]) mirrored in the film. That being said, George Bailey ISN’T the all-sacrificing, long-suffering martyr he is sometimes perceived as. We see some of his dreams fall apart, yes, but his love and adoration of his family and their love and adoration of him in return (also a major theme of the film) compensates for all minor unrealized dreams. Mary and his children bring him more happiness and fulfillment than traveling around and around the world ever could. Near the film’s end, George is not begging to return to Bedford Falls because alternate-world Potter has ruined his beloved town. He is begging to return to Bedford Falls so he can once again see the loves of his life.

    2. Potter does not receive his comeuppance. This is not true, we just don’t see him receive it on film. Potter has done everything within his power to shut down Bailey Building and Loans, including committing larceny. Toward the end of the film, he believes he’s finally succeeded. George Bailey is going to jail. The Bailey Building and Loans will soon be extinct. BUUUUUUUT no. When he realizes that George Bailey will NOT be going to jail and that the Building and Loans will NOT be closing down, despite all of his best efforts, he will be royally, epically pissed. And yes, there is that dying loveless and alone bit too.

    Were Potter to receive a more traditional comeuppance and be found out as a crooked thief (a la the Dana Carvey SNL sketch), the ending would not only seem ultra-unrealistic (which is a tough feat to accomplish in a movie about an angel altering the time-space continuum), but it would completely undermine all of the film’s major messages and themes. Watching an evil man get what’s coming to him isn’t the point at all, and for those who stare at the outpouring of love and friendship during the film’s finale and scream, “Yeah, but what about Potter!?” there are five Charles Bronson revenge-heavy Death Wish movies you could be watching instead.