It’s the most beloved Christmas movie of all time… but should it be?
It’s a Wonderful Life does have its redemptive themes about the value of a man’s life that is essential for everyone, but ultimately, it still does not understand its own message about how no man is a failure who has friends, even after seventy-eight years.
How so? Well, I’ll just start with one of the more obvious issues that this beloved classic holds. Looking at Donna Reed throughout this film, she always has perfect hair and makeup, even right after she just jumped into a swimming pool. Never is this gorgeous Hollywood icon ever made to appear even remotely average looking, the closest she gets to that is in the alternate George-less timeline when she wears glasses and hides her hair under a hat to match her relative ugliness with her lack of success as a single woman.
Nothing about this movie has aged well, you’re constantly reminded that this is the early half of the 20th century as one scene just casually shows a Black slave joyfully serving her White masters, and in a scene with a lamp over a dining room table that is blocked over the actors’ faces. That’s not even counting the fact that James Stewart must play his character as a teenager, with no effort put in to make him look younger. I realize this was the 1940s and aging technology was scarce, but still, the crew could have found ways around their obstacles, such as casting a younger actor who looks like James Stewart. Such carelessness by director Frank Capra made it harder for the characters to easily relate to.
Although this flawed film did not become a cherished holiday tradition for nothing: it’s still got strong performances to keep viewers invested. It’s way more effective after the spooky cemetery scene of doom makes the acting more devastating to watch. There’s much of that shifting between bones and beauty, the two coming together in the beautiful opening sequence of prayers that sound appropriate to the mood. There’s a real childlike innocence within everyone George touches with his life, which makes his anger so true to the psychology of a nervous breakdown.
The acting overall shows the harsh reality of life, especially how sudden it is, until the presence of George’s guardian angel, Clarence, with his “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” theme, reminds you of the wonder you saw in everyone’s expressions. The powerful juxtapositions are constant across this film in a way that even gets on your nerves, such as the playing of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” on the piano. Although the kid actors are no good in bringing out the two ends of this film’s emotional spectrum, the oldest actors in this feature have true authoritative speech.
But the best performance is Thomas Mitchell as George’s Uncle Billy, who gives some nice lively humor. A sense of wonder is ever alive in his eyes, much different than the deathly fear seen in the eyes of everyone’s low point. With Mitchell’s voice of failed masculinity, it verbalizes the delicacy of the 1940s nuclear family home, as if you’re now hearing the creaky knob that keeps breaking off the stairway of the Bailey house.
That doesn’t necessarily erase all the flaws of this genuinely average film, which is more than anything else weighed down by the weak character arcs. I said before that Donna Reed is a victim of Hollywood beauty standards, which means she’s now so stunning that she’s not even a real character, just a cardboard placeholder to indicate how successful George is as a married man. I haven’t even gotten into Mr. Potter yet… an overly evil bad guy beyond the capacity to be a friend or make friends. It’s funny how this movie tries to say how Christmas is about giving to another’s needs but makes an exception to that rule when you’re a greedy old banker; in that case, you deserve no presents.
I’m so very sorry that I must do this to what may be your favorite movie to watch this time of year, but I just got to tell you the hard truth. Despite its best efforts based on what was available at the time of production, It’s a Wonderful Life hasn’t aged well, which makes its misguided message about giving to other friends even more noticeable. Your sense of failure is not based on whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s not based on whether you’re American or not. It’s not based on whether you’re married or single. It’s not based on how old or young you are. It’s not based on your profession. It’s not even based on the other people in your life. Your ability to avoid failure is by choosing to live, as this movie does say, but also to know that there is a God out there who loves you and wants you to turn to His son for eternal life. Don’t forget who those angels are in service to!
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!
Firouzi, Omeed. “It's a Wonderful Life, the Meaning of Life, and Christmas.” Digital image. The Firouzi Files. BlogSpot, 23 Dec 2018. Web. <http://omeedfirouzi.blogspot.com/2013/12/its-wonderful-life-meaning-of-life-and.html>.