One of the essential Christmas movies, It’s a Wonderful Life has been entertaining, moving, and inspiring audiences for generations. Although not embraced by critics or the public in its initial 1946 release, it has since become one of the most beloved American films, both during the holidays and any season. Christmas films have come and gone, but It’s a Wonderful Life continues to strike a particular chord with audiences who can relate to, and cheer on, the Bailey family time and time again.
Throughout his life in the small town of Bedford Falls, George Bailey is constantly forced to put his dreams on hold and settle for (what he perceives as) less. After saving up four years to go to college, his father suffers a stroke and George has to stay put and run the family business, the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan. When George and his wife Mary wed, their honeymoon trip around the world is canceled as the Great Depression hits Bedford Falls and their gift money is needed to keep the doors of the Building & Loan open. As World War II hits, a childhood injury prevents George from enlisting, so all he can do is volunteer in smaller, local war efforts. Each step of life brings with it another setback, another factor entrenching George Bailey in the small-town life he’s trying to escape.
This theme works through the perfect casting of James Stewart, the embodiment of the “all-American” lead. Consider the other stars of the era: the dashing Clark Gable, the suave and sophisticated Cary Grant, the “tough guy” Humphrey Bogart. And then there’s the plucky, down-to-earth James Stewart, a small-town hero turned congressman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the slow-witted, mismatched lover for Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Unlike the other male leads in the 1940s, aspirational figures with a key mystique and way with the ladies, Stewart is none of these. He’s no Greek God, just a regular guy who could be the “boy next door.”
Stewart as George Bailey is so essential for how we as an audience engage with the film. He could be any one of us, or our fathers, our husbands. We aren’t watching a romanticized, stylized take on the American man – Stewart is as American as they get. In the film’s final act, when Stewart’s character George Bailey considers suicide as his best option (after his rival Mr. Potter tells him he’s “worth more dead than alive”), it’s not just the Bailey family at risk – it’s the American family.
This makes George Bailey’s breakdown, and redemption, on Christmas Eve all the more powerful. The family gathered downstairs like a Norman Rockwell picture of Americana: sons wearing Santa hats, daughter practicing Christmas carols on the piano. George comes home after suffering a devastating blow at work, and lashes out at his children and wife Mary; in shame, he flees to take his own life by jumping off a bridge. A guardian angel, Clarence, intervenes, by showing George the dark, alternate reality if George were never born. Realizing how much his family, friends, and community need him, George begs to live again.
A newly-awakened George dashes home, and finds his living room full of all those he’d helped and sacrificed for along the way: each ready to return the favor and help George now that he’s in trouble. George’s return home means the restoration of the family, and the community’s support reinstates faith and trust in small-town America.
A terrific film on its own merits, much of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s power is how it affects viewers in different stages of life. As a child, I saw myself more in the Bailey children, confused and upset if my parents were ever unhappy. As I mature more as a young adult, each year I relate more and more to George Bailey, struggling to balance ambitious dreams with the realities of everyday life. Whatever your place in life, everyone can relate to and be inspired by this movie masterpiece and its inspiring message that “No man is a failure who has friends.”