As it’s Christmas Eve, we should probably review a Christmas film. And it doesn’t get much more Christmas film than It’s A Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s 1946 classic set on Christmas Eve. Unsurprisingly, it’s on TV today. (13.10, Channel 4)
His last penny stolen by the greedy Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), our depressed hero George Bailey (James Stewart) gets drunk and is about to kill himself. But a guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) tries to save him, by showing George what life would be like without him, Dickens-style.
It’s easy to see why this is considered the quintessential Christmas movie – there’s drama, romance and an uplifting ending. Stewart is warm and charming as ever in the lead role, even though he sometimes looks disconcertingly like Nicolas Cage, while Barrymore (of the Drew Barrymore family) makes a fine Scrooge-like villain.
However, most of the film is very depressing, making you wonder if the title is meant ironically. George spends his entire life doing things for other people, running a business he hates to provide housing to those in need. He dreams of seeing the world but never gets a chance to leave his home town, watching all his friends move away. The first time he tries to do something that’s just for himself, commit suicide, he’s stopped by divine intervention. Just let the poor guy die!
The angel then shows George what the town would be like if he’d never been born, even though it would make a lot more sense to show him what the town would be like if he killed himself. If he committed suicide, the town wouldn’t transform into some parallel version where he never existed. But anyway, the town without George resembles Magaluf, with every building now some house of debauchery, be it a strip club, bar or casino. Here the film takes on a puritanical preachiness, showing its conservatively religious colours in lovely black and white. It also suddenly stops snowing, though quite why George never being born would affect the weather is never explained.
He sees his wife, who without the existence of George never marries. That seems unlikely given the number of other admirers she has in the town, and implies a fatalistic and romanticised worldview whereby we’re all destined to be with one person. And if that person is never born, then tough, you die alone. Weird. Also with the absence of George, she starts wearing glasses. Again this is never explained.
As for the ending, Capra decides to make up for the previous two hours of bleakness by cramming in as much schmaltz as humanly possible. This penchant for sentimentality gave rise to the label Capracorn, and the end of It’s A Wonderful Life is a veritable Capracornucopia. In its obvious desire to warm the heart, it ends up undermining its message about the evils of money. The karmic conclusion reinforces that rose-tinted worldview, falling back on its religious moralism.
It’s A Wonderful Life sits at the top of the cinematic Christmas tree thanks to its sincere performances, compelling drama and warm comedy – the Charleston sequence is particularly funny. But like The Shawshank Redemption, Red Lights or The Breakfast Club, the ending undermines all that has preceded it. With its fanciful outlook and schmaltzy contrivances, it descends into “sentimental hogwash”, to borrow Mr. Potter’s phrase. Personally, I’d rather just watch Limmy’s version.