The Frank Capra classic It’s A Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas movie. It is also reportedly the favorite movie of Frank Capra, and the film’s stars James Stewart and Donna Reed. According to Capra’s autobiography “The Name above the Title”, the director was quite proud of the 1946 film. “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made,” he wrote.
I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life when I was in college. I was immediately drawn into the story of the protagonist George Bailey played by Jimmy Stewart, an intelligent man who feels that he has lost out on many opportunities in life, because circumstances thrust him into running his family’s business “The Bailey Building & Loan”. When we are first introduced to George Bailey, it is Christmas Eve and Bailey, the father of four, is in a crisis. The Bailey Building & Loan is short $8000 which in 1946 was a lot of money. The desperation which George feels takes him so out on the brink that he considers taking his own life so that his family can collect upon his life insurance policy. While he is going through this crisis, he meets Clarence, an angel in training, who is trying to earn his wings by saving George. Clarence stumbles on a strategy to steer George away from suicide by showing him what the world would be like without him.
It’s a Wonderful Life resonates with so many people because it reminds us that we are not alone. We are not alone in our feelings of depression and isolation. While not everyone actually contemplates suicide, many people experience chronic, episodic or seasonal depression which is so overwhelming that those who succumb to it cannot get out of bed. Or if we are getting out of bed, we are going about our days as if we are literally under a black cloud. The black cloud envelopes us to the point that we are casting a blinding dark shadow which prevents us from seeing the clearing right in front of us.
Capra’s film also reminds us that we are not physically alone. Every individual is part of the greater human community and we all have an impact on the lives of others. We may not always realize our impact because those whose lives we touch don’t always tell us. When the Angel Clarence shows George the panorama of individuals whose lives would be on completely different plains if they had not encountered George Bailey, we are uplifted. We think of those who touched our lives and realize that perhaps we may have touched a few lives, too.
The film It’s a Wonderful Life, which is based on Philip Van Doren’s short story “The Greatest Gift” which he penned in 1939 and published in 1945, obviously also pays some level of homage to the famous Charles Dickens novella A Christmas Carol (1843) which has been immortalized in film over twenty times. In Dickens’ Christmas chestnut, the protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, a hard-hearted miser who hates Christmas because he has many unhappy memories associated with the holiday, including the death of his business partner and his sister, is visited by three ghosts who help him find the true spirit of Christmas.
However, for many It’s a Wonderful Life resonates with individuals more than A Christmas Carol does, because we can relate to the small town small businessman George Bailey more than we can relate to the exaggerated, emblematic caricature Ebenezer Scrooge. Most of us have been to that emotional place where we feel that life has passed us by and that others are going places while we are standing still. We can also relate to that feeling of being underwater financially. If we are unemployed or significantly underemployed, we may be concerned about how we are going to pay our bills. If we are employed, we may not know how long it is going to last. And finally, if we are small business people, we may be facing lower sales receipts and slow paying clients. Many can relate to feeling like we are just two checks away from financial ruin.
The reason why we this film puts a smile on our faces and a song in our heart every year is that we all understand that there is a bridge between despair and contentment. And that you can only cross that bridge if you have faith and gratitude. As a result of the encounter with Clarence, George had the epiphany that he had a “wonderful life” and headed home fully expecting to be sent to prison for the Bailey Building & Loan’s $8000 deficit. He realized that he may be short $8000, but he still had his wife and four children, extended family and friends and so very much to live for. It was only then that George was rewarded by the community’s coming together for him to help him pay the $8000 debt. This collective act of kindness came about because, throughout his life, George had helped so many other people through both his personal interactions and his business.
The cynics may say if I can’t pay my bills, my friends and family aren’t going to pay them for me. But again that is not the point. The point is that when George let go of fear and expressed gratitude for the blessings in his life, this Christmas miracle happened. Even if George had returned home and still had the $8000 debt, you get the feeling that he would have found another way to repay it. He had his faith back and with that anything is possible.