It’s a Wonderful Life is a drama from 1946, directed by Frank Capra, and written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Capra, and Jo Swerling. The film is based on the short story, The Greatest Gift, self published by Philip Van Doren Stern.
The film stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, Donna Reed as Mary Bailey and Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter.
The story of It’s a Wonderful Life, happens on Christmas Eve, as George Bailey, a banker from Bedford Falls, New York is going to kill himself as a result of his failing business, Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. This business was a family business, which he had given up on his dreams to uphold. Suicide had a much bigger stigma in the 1940s then it does today. In my country (Ireland), attempting suicide was only decriminalised in 19931. The angel, Clarence is assigned to talk him out of suicide, and he and the audience is given a flashback over the life of Mr. Bailey.
It’s an example of how a story, can be ahead of it’s time.
The first hour of the film is a look back at the life of George Bailey, who we see that while he can be a bit whiney, we see that he was overall a kind and generous man who cared for the people of his town. George is deaf in one ear due to saving his brother’s life at the age of twelve. Jimmy Stewart portrays an excellent performance as George Bailey.
Other acts of looking after the people of Bedford Falls include:
- Telling the local pharmacist, Mr. Gower who he worked for that he was wrongly mixing up drugs, preventing him from manslaughter.
- George in his early twenties wants to go on a world tour, but when his father dies, he has to run the family business in order to save the business. The board members of the business, will only allow the business to keep going if George runs it.
- His wedding day happens on the day of the Wall Street Crash (bad timing). To prevent his business being insolvent, and his clients depending on Mr. Potter to sort out their housing situation, George uses his honeymoon fund to keep the business going.
- George Bailey’s business eventually sets up Bailey Park, a modern building project, which gives people on modest incomes access to good houses. This is in contract to the houses that are owned by Mr. Potter, overpriced slums.
About an hour into the film, Billy, George’s uncle misplaces $8,000 (about $114,500 in todays money2), Mr. Potter finds the money and does not tell anyone. This happens on the day, when a bank examiner comes into Bailey’s business. Without the $8,000, Bailey’s business is insolvent, and Mr. Bailey is in danger of being prosecuted for a crime he didn’t commit.
George Bailey goes to Mr. Potter for a bailout, but Potter is in no mood for mercy and phones the police. Believing that he has no way out, George Bailey goes to the river and tries to drown himself. The guardian angel, Clarence, shows George what the town of Bedford Falls (called Pottersville in this alternative time line), would be like if he never existed.
- George’s brother, Harry, died at the age of nine, drowning in the river. He never went to college and never saved hundreds of soldiers from a kamikaze pilot.
- George’s wife, Mary is a lonely librarian, who never marries and has a family.
- Bailey Brothers Building and Loan goes insolvent years ago, leading to two consequences.
- George’s uncle, Billy becomes mentally ill and ends up in the insane asylum.
- Bailey Park never exists, and the town of Pottersville is a deeply unpleasant place to live, with the people of the community living a marginal existence with bad housing with expensive rents, a high crime rate and the people of the town being miserable. Without George Bailey, there was no one who could stand up to Mr. Potter’s vision for the town.
When George, realises what he had done for the community, he eventually doesn’t go through with taking his own life and goes back to his family. George’s wife, Mary realises that George has serious money troubles and asks the people of Bedford Falls for help. Everybody who George had helped in his life, contributes to saving Bailey’s business.
Villain. The villain of the film of the film, is Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). He isn’t a complex character, being driven by greed and profit. Mr. Potter is an excellent foil for George Bailey, being primarily also a banker, but having no social conscience and only seeing the people of Bedford Falls as people to exploit for his own gain. He tried to take down Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, three times in the film, attempting to monopolise control of housing in Bedford Falls. He doesn’t get his comeuppance, but he doesn’t need to.
Christmas Film. This film is more of a biography of a good man, then in itself a Christmas film. The attempted suicide is a mood killer, but you learn that if you have friends then you are never alone. The final scene of the people of Bedford Falls singing “Auld Lang Synge” is a Christmas type scene.
Is it worth a watch? Yes, very much, it tells an interesting story, that while slow, eventually links up with the impact of George Bailey’s life has a positive impact of the town. The lessons in the story are valuable and the film can be watched at any time of the year. Five Star.
As a Christmas Film. Four Stars.