There’s a cut of this that I watched on Tubi and it literally cuts out all of the parts where Clarence (Henry Travers) shows George (James Stewart) what life would be like if he was never born and wow, what a choice. Like, imagine if you never watched this before and that’s the one you saw. Why was this made? Who is it for?
Directed by Frank Capra, who wrote it with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, this movie bombed upon release and started the idea that Capra had lost touch. It didn’t become a classic until 1974 when it became a public domain film — all because of a clerical error — and stations started showing it for free.
It was also a movie that the FBI was worried about, writing a memo that said: “”With regard to the picture It’s A Wonderful Life, redacted stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a scrooge-type so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists. In addition, redacted stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”
What’s funny is that Mr. Potter gets away with his crime.
This is a classic and seen as a movie that’s a positive holiday movie, yet consider the review of it by Wendell Jamieson in the New York Times who said that it “is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher, and your oppressively perfect wife.”
I mean, you’re married to Donna Reed, dude.
Capra was shocked that it became a classic. In 1984, he told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be President. I’m proud but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
Watching it again, this movie feels like one that makes so much sense today. You work as hard as you can and you get a review that says meets expectations and yet despite helping everyone else, you are one missed paycheck or one mistake away from losing everything, constantly afraid of letting everyone down which will be worse because you’ve never let anyone down before despite it gnawing at you forever. This movie sticks with me so hard because in that moment that George wonders, drunk on the bridge, if he should dive into the icy waters of death below I had a moment when I realized when my professional life fell to pieces that I would soon be worth more dead than alive that I should turn my car off a bridge so that my wife could get the insurance money and move on and have something more than me staring into nothingness wondering where it all went wrong. I had no angel reading Tom Sawyer to guide me, only several dark nights where I put a time limit of how much longer I could remain alive before I found something valuable to do and when I did, I put everything into it.
Yes, so this may be a maudlin old movie filled with sentimental notions and Capra was worried that he saw so much atheism when he made it but you know, it means something. It’s a supernatural holiday story but at its heart it has something true. These moments of ennui and pain can and will end, even at the time that we are in them that they feel that they are endless. I hope that my story and this holiday will ease these moments from your mind and that you can see that tomorrow will come.
Even Orson Welles said, “There’s no way of hating that movie.”