Directed by Frank Capra
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame
Christmas film review by Sam Bowles
Well, here it is – the heartwarming Christmas Classic about a guy who wants to commit suicide.
That really is the starting point for the plot. Of course, it’s no major spoiler to reveal that things turn out okay in the end. Still, this film is certainly a good deal darker and more brooding – even goddamn film noirish in places – than reputation would suggest.
Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a guy who’s always wanted to escape his small-town existence in Bedford Falls and see the world. But life got in the way and he’s ended up staying there to take over his dad’s business and raise a family of his own.
One Christmas Eve, feeling desperate and hopeless due to financial worries, George considers throwing himself off a bridge. An angel (yes, an actual angel), Clarence, is sent down to talk him out of it. Clarence shows George a nightmarish version of how the present would look without his contribution to the lives of so many people. In other words, It’s A Wonderful Life asks us all a profound question: How would the world today look if you’d never existed?
This tour of an alternate reality is the best sequence of the film, drawing on elements of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, while also foreshadowing a similar sequence in Back to the Future Part II. The high contrast lighting by Capra’s regular DoP, Joseph Walker, gives the sequence a terrifying, Kafkaesque quality.
Please don’t be put off by this description. It’s A Wonderful Life is still great entertainment and a great Christmas film. It’s funny, lyrical, unusual – and it really does make you feel good…eventually.
A cool Christmas-movie-double-bill would be to pair It’s A Wonderful Life with Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which references the Capra classic and is set in Kingston (rather than Bedford) Falls. Gremlins offers the comedy-horror alternative of life in small-town America.