Content Note: Mention of death, suicide and sexual harrasment

A man achieves none of his dreams. He becomes suicidal as he faces imprisonment and his long-fought battle against a greedy capitalist monopolist seems doomed to failure. Sound a likely recipe for a festive family favourite? I wouldn’t think so either, but this summarises one of the most popular Christmas films ever made. So, why, 75 years on, does It’s a Wonderful Life still dominate a genre typically defined by saccharinity?

This 1946 Frank Capra classic tells the story of George Bailey, played to eccentric excellence by James Stewart. Growing up in the American small-town of Bedford Falls, George has big dreams. However, due to a series of unfortunate events (read: reluctant acts of self-sacrifice), he ends up stuck there, resentfully running the family business. “The Bailey Bros. Building & Loan”, crucially, represents the town’s only opposition to the near monopoly of Mr. Potter, a delightfully over-the-top caricature of greed. Everything comes to a head when George’s scatter-brained Uncle Billy misplaces around $120,000 in today’s money (it could happen to anyone, ok?) and the business looks set to sink. Cue the arrival of George’s bumbling guardian angel, Clarence, on a mission to convince his charge that his life matters. He transports George to a version of his hometown created by granting the protagonist’s misguided wish to have never been born.

“Moral number one: each of us matters, regardless of how much of a failure we consider ourselves”

The lessons of It’s a Wonderful Life are trite, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful. Moral number one: each of us matters, regardless of how much of a failure we consider ourselves. George’s reckoning of success doesn’t account for the universal truth that Clarence reminds him of: “Every single man’s life touches so many others”. His achievements are so unrecognised that he doesn’t even realise they exist until they don’t. In World War II, while his brother shoots down German fighter pilots, a montage cuts back to George, his face comically distorted as he puffs on an air-raid whistle “fighting the battle of Bedford Falls”. He never becomes an explorer; he doesn’t even go on his honeymoon. George’s absence, however, proves to have an immense and often catastrophic effect on the lives of others. Without him and his unassuming brand of heroism, his brother dies, a local pharmacist is imprisoned, and perhaps most importantly, most of the townspeople reside in squalor in a shantytown.


For a film firmly lodged in the cultural mainstream, It’s a Wonderful Life centres a pretty radical message: people are more important than profits. George devotes his life to providing an affordable “couple of decent rooms and a bath” for the town’s working class. Where classist Potter sees rent money, George sees human beings with hopes and aspirations: “this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this town.” At the end, after the grateful townspeople have collectively raised enough money to save the business, a toast is proposed “To George Bailey, the richest man in town!” It’s a Wonderful Life admonishes us to measure our lives in love, rather than through worse, but more conventional capitalist criteria.

It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. The film foregrounds an important truth, all too easily obscured by the relentless daily grind: that we can take absolutely nothing for granted. Every year, I watch the exuberant scene when George returns, with fresh eyes, to his simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary life. Sprinting wildly down the streets of Bedford Falls, he greets his formerly maligned workplace by shouting: “Merry Christmas, you wonderful Old Building and Loan!” at the top of his lungs; he fervently kisses the broken banister knob which he used to grumble about. Each year, I, like George, revaluate things easily dismissed as banal nuisances as precious and transient. That’s a thought we could all benefit from, particularly after a year as brutal as this one.

“Despite its troubling aspects, the essence of It’s a Wonderful Life is as important as ever”

The film is far from perfect. There’s an inexcusable scene of ‘banterous’ sexual harassment of the Bailey’s Black maid. Some of the purportedly ‘dystopian’ aspects of the alternate reality have troubling implications. God forbid that George’s wife Mary has ended up old maid and even worse a librarian, rendered undesirable by the trope of a conventionally attractive woman putting on a pair of glasses. In the ‘better’ reality, Mary is (depending on your point of view) angelically patient or painfully submissive. While raising four children, and doing all the housework, she uncomplainingly bears the brunt of George’s frustrations; I seriously believe that he’d get a lot out of some anger-management sessions.


Mountain View

Searching for home in Wong Kar Wai

In an era of seemingly insurmountable global challenges (here’s looking at you, Covid-19 and climate change), defeatism and resignation can seem seductively simple. That’s why, despite its troubling aspects, the essence of It’s a Wonderful Life is as important as ever. The moment we stop believing that individuals have the power to change the world, our defeatism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This Christmas let’s take a leaf out of George Bailey’s book, and make our decisions based on solidarity with others, rather than out of self-interest. After all, that’s what Christmas is all about.