24th December: It’s a Wonderful Life

Image: RKO Pictures

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy!

Year: 1946

Director: Frank Capra

Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling, Phillip Van Doren Stern

Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers

May contain spoilers.

I’d never really noticed it before, but James Stewart is a phenomenal actor. I mean he is one of the legends of American cinema, of course, someone for whom the outrageously overused term ‘icon’ could reasonably be applied. But I think I’d always kind of taken him for granted in It’s a Wonderful Life, where he pretty much carries the whole film.

On this, my fourth watch, it was Stewart’s performance that most caught my eye. As did the swooning romance at the film’s centre, something that had previously passed me by a bit. I’ll focus on these parts of It’s a Wonderful Life here, because the rest of it is so famous and has been so talked about, that there’s not much point me repeating it here. In short: It’s a Wonderful Life is a joyous film, with a tearjerker ending that is thoroughly well-earned. It prioritises goodness and friendship above all else, and is surprisingly dark for most of its running time, making the final 15 minutes all the more elating.

But back to Stewart. What is immediately obvious about his performance is how well he embodies the ‘good guy’ archetype that the film uses for its hero George Bailey. Stewart’s tall, thin frame is imposing, but he has a kind, non-threatening face and a softness to his distinctive voice that make him so easily likeable. What struck me most this time, however, is how magnetic Stewart is when things get rough. As George Bailey loses everything and contemplates suicide, the desperation on Stewart’s face is palpable. When his guardian angel shows George what life would have been like without him, the leading man is equally good at bewilderment and horror.

Then, in those famous closing scenes that are all people really remember about this film, he makes George’s joy at being reunited with his family so visceral, so authentic that he brings tears to my face as if through sheer force of will. There is a great physicality to Stewart’s acting, like the way he hugs his children as if life depended on it. He so brilliantly conveys the desperation and need involved in love, something we instantly know he feels deeply.

Which brings us to the second thing that stuck out on this re-watch. Before, I thought of Donna Reed’s Mary as an engaging and necessary part of George’s story, but this time I realised just how much of the appeal of It’s a Wonderful Life lies in her romance with George. Not only is there a lovely meet-cute at the wonderful Charleston competition set-piece, followed by the magnificently romantic ‘I’ll give you the moon’ scene, but there’s something deeper in there that drives the film.

A man as selfless as George Bailey cannot be sustained solely by feeling good about his deeds, he also needs to get something out of life for himself. But that’s not money, it’s love. Just watch the scene when he comes back from the Building & Loan having saved it from ruin to find his new bride asleep in bed. He’s exhausted and run-down by the money-grabbing antics of Scrooge-like Mr. Potter, but as soon as he sees Mary everything is fine again on George’s face. He remembers he’s in love, and that’s the best reward of all.

I will admit that I found the film a bit slower this year, but this is balanced out by the familiar warmth it imparts. The final minutes are so wonderful, that I got a little impatient waiting for them, making the build-up seem a little dragged-out. On reflection, though, there is very little in It’s a Wonderful Life that doesn’t feel necessary. It is scene after scene of captivating light drama delivered by fine filmmaking, with Stewart pulling us through it a performance for the ages.

Where it Ranks

I went into the Christmas Movie Advent Calendar thinking that It’s a Wonderful Life was the best Christmas film around, but having seen few others. I put it at the end of the challenge here so I could experience everything else on offer, and then coming back to the old favourite at the end. To check if it’s still top dog, mostly.

Having now watched 25 other Christmas, I can say that there have been some wonderful surprises (Happiest Season, Black Christmas), some films that probably trump It’s a Wonderful Life for sheer sugary entertainment (Elf, Arthur Christmas) and even some that I’d rather watch again right now (The Muppet Christmas Carol). But nothing has quite got the same magic. Nothing else feels so far above formula, so very much its own kind of wonderful. Every other film feels like a riff on something we all know, varying in its degree of success. It’s a Wonderful Life feels special, a film that has endured for so long and is still so beloved. Frank Capra’s work is pretty much the dictionary definition of a timeless classic, and taps into Christmas spirit better than just about anything else.

Optimistic. Heartwarming. Undefeated.

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. Die Hard
  3. Happiest Season
  4. Klaus
  5. Arthur Christmas
  6. Black Christmas
  7. The Muppet Christmas Carol
  8. Elf
  9. The Best Man Holiday
  10. The Nightmare Before Christmas
  11. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  12. Scrooged
  13. Love Actually
  14. Gremlins
  15. Home Alone
  16. Krampus
  17. The Christmas Chronicles
  18. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
  19. Last Christmas
  20. Nativity!
  21. The Holiday
  22. Noelle
  23. The Santa Clause
  24. The Grinch
  25. The Princess Switch
  26. A Bad Moms Christmas

Andrew Young