If movies were children, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life would wind up at the top of Santa’s “nice” list. (The naughty Bad Santa, on the other hand, would get singled out for punishment.) Yet, at the time of its release, 1946, it wasn’t exactly rewarded with a basketful of goodies at the box office – and it isn’t difficult to see why. Christmas movies, in the audience’s mind, then as now, abound with ho-ho-wholesome cheer. Consider the big hits. Home Alone. Elf. The Santa Clause. Miracle on 34th Street. These films only hint at depressing subject matter – a ruddy-cheeked child abandoned by his large family; a trial seeking to tar and feather a department-store Santa believed to be the real deal – while coasting on a cloud of holiday cheer. The ads could proclaim what they’ve always proclaimed: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. (And you’ll learn what the spirit of Christmas is all about – family and faith.)
A really truthful ad for It’s A Wonderful Life, on the other hand, would have declared: You’ll feel like slitting your wrists. Indeed, the depressed protagonist, George Bailey, tries to kill himself after getting smashed out of his skull – and that’s just the film’s beginning. Hovering around this central event are episodes no less funereal – a child falls through a frozen lake, another child loses partial hearing, a third child is almost poisoned, a father suffers a fatal stroke, money saved up for a honeymoon is lost in the cause of repairing losses, skyrocketing rents burden the poor, savings are stolen, an arrest warrant is issued, a car crashes into a tree during a snowstorm, and a long-cherished dream is repeatedly sacrificed. Has there been a more downbeat story that’s come to symbolise the spirit of a holiday?
And yet, at a time Christmas has come to signify shopping more than anything else – bow-tied presents at the bottom of the tree – It’s A Wonderful Life argues for an appreciation of the life of Christ Himself, who suffered for His fellow men. George, too, suffers for the betterment of those around him, his crown of thorns always a private lament. And the heartwarming core of the film is that he learns, as do we, that a wonderful life is one that touches a million lives, however glancingly, however accidentally. Is it sentimental? Oh yes. But just as the angel in the film earns his wings, the film earns its tears. George Bailey is saved, at the end, by the very people he’s saved over and over. In the words of Clarence, the freshly minted angel, no man is a failure who has friends. Nice guys do finish first.
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