“A toast! To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those rare films which seems impervious to the effects of time. It has such a simple, effortless charm, such a resonant and timeless message, and such a wonderfully affirmative power, that it is still strikingly affecting 70 years after its release.
“the film skilfully weaves a rich and varied cinematic tapestry which illustrates the full spectrum of human emotion”
The film is a goldmine of beautiful and heartbreaking moments, and every time I watch it I have a different one. Like when a young Mary leans over the counter and says into George’s deaf ear: “I’ll love you ’till the day I die, George Bailey”. Or when George waxes lyrical to Mary about his dreams of building bridges and skyscrapers, so confident of his own powers that he promises to grab the moon for her with his lasso. Or the heartbreaking moment when a drunk Mr Gower stumbles pathetically into the town bar, cold and tearful, only to have water sprayed onto his face like he were a stray cat. With moments such as these the film skilfully weaves a rich and varied cinematic tapestry which illustrates the full spectrum of human emotion.
George’s rediscovery of life, so precious and hard-won, is touchingly reaffirmed right at the end, when he returns home to discover that his friends all have banded together in order to raise the $8,000 he needs to avoid bankruptcy. The last scene expresses Capra’s own Platonic conception of humankind in all its essential goodness, and it overflows with a communal spirit that is at once touching and life-affirming.
I don’t think Capra ever intended to depict the world as it is, or human beings as they are. Rather, he shows us what we might become. Watching one of his films is like being transported to another universe, into a world where the forces of neighbourliness, generosity and selfless love always overcome the darker instincts of human nature.
This is fantasy but of a humble kind. Our potential as human beings is expressed as lying not in the fulfilment of our Faustian dreams of building ‘skyscrapers a hundred feet high’, as a wide-eyed young George Bailey declares he will do. Rather, it lies in our recognition of our interdependence, of our need for each other as human beings, and of the joy that can be found in following even the most mundane homespun homilies such as love thy neighbour.
It’s often said that violence in films is contagious. The positive effects are less commonly mentioned. I defy anyone to watch It's a Wonderful Life and come away not wanting to be a kinder, more generous person
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