So this is the big Christmas movie …
It certainly isn’t what I was expecting.
It’s not just that the film isn’t particularly family friendly or Christmasy. The bigger surprise is that the lead character isn’t nice and his life is not wonderful.
The lack of wonderfulness of George Bailey’s life is the bulk of the plot. When we meet young George (Jimmy Stewart), he is a fun-loving teen who’s ready to leave his sleepy hometown of Bedford Falls and explore the world.
Just as he is about to go away to college, his father dies. George feels duty bound to stay and run the family business: a struggling mortgage company. If his bank fails, greedy miser Mr. Potter will take over the town.
George marries the unexciting girl next door Mary (Donna Reed) and has four children. All without ever seeing the world or following his own dreams.
This leaves George Bailey feeling unfulfilled, bitter, and trapped. At its heart, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the story of a man growing angrier and angrier.
Early on, George is only kind-of a jerk. The very night he proposes to Mary he tries to go off on an amorous adventure with the other lady who likes him.
By the time we get to the climax, George is out of control with rage. He physically assaults his uncle for losing some cash. He yells at his child’s teacher for no particular reason. He snaps at his daughter for the crime of trying to learn a song on the piano for him.
“You once called me a ‘warped, frustrated old man,’” Mr. Potter scoffs at George. “What are you but a warped, frustrated young man?” And Potter is right! George has sacrificed himself for the good of his community and it has made him desperately miserable.
If writer/director Frank Capra was trying to warn us not to sacrifice our needs for the public good, then he made a perfect, powerful film. But that’s not what the movie’s about at all.
The ending – that ridiculously happy ending … it’s so wrong. It’s too happy and it doesn’t fit with the rest of the film.
Two big things suddenly change in the final scene. One, George suddenly decides that his stultifying dead-end life is pretty grand and becomes grateful and joyous. Two, all of his problems evaporate when the entire community chips in and gives him piles of money.
So which is it, Frank Capra? Are you telling us to appreciate the humble life that we have? Or are you telling us that we should be good citizens because it will inspire our neighbors to spontaneously toss cash at us like Flo Rida at a Gentleman’s Club?
And where does the angel fit into this? Did Clarence the Angel make all of this happen with his heavenly magic? Or did he coincidentally help George to change his attitude on the very night that he got rich?
To be fair, I basically love this movie and will eagerly watch it again. Jimmy Stewart was an intense actor with a commanding screen presence, and this is his most passionate performance.
But “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a weird, unfocused, and unexpectedly dark film. I can see why many families prefer “A Christmas Story” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”