It’s almost Christmas, which means that somewhere a critic is sharpening his pen for that staple of Yuletide contrarianism, Your Beloved Festive Film Is Actually Bad. One classic that often comes in for this treatment is a favourite of mine, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’d like to offer the case for the defence.
The film introduces us to George Bailey of Bedford Falls. He dreams of becoming an architect. But when his father dies, he reluctantly takes over the family business, a rackety building society called Building & Loan, realising that if he does not do so it will be taken over by slumlord Henry F Potter. Later he sacrifices his honeymoon savings to keep the B&L solvent during a run on the banks, and turns down a Faustian offer of a well-paid job with Potter.
Meanwhile, George’s schoolfriend Sam Wainwright becomes rich. His brother Harry becomes a decorated war hero after preventing a kamikaze attack on a troopship. George marries his sweetheart Mary and lives a quiet, frugal life. We see signs of his disappointment and frustration as he approaches middle age. When Potter frames him for false accounting, he despairs, deciding that the world would be better if he had never been born. He plans to kill himself so that his family will receive his life insurance.
An angel, Clarence, intervenes, showing George what life would have been like without him. The working-class families whom George helped to buy their own homes are still in Potter’s slums. Harry is dead, killed in a childhood accident because George was not there to save him; so, consequently, are the hundreds of men on the troopship. George’s old boss, Mr Gower, is a broken man after serving a prison term for manslaughter – because a young George was not there to prevent him from making a fatal dispensing error. Mary and his mother are lonely and embittered.
Eventually George begs Clarence for his old life back, and returns to it to find that the town has rallied round to supply the money needed to defeat Potter’s scheming. Harry Bailey shows up to toast his older brother as “the richest man in town”. In the closing shot, George looks at the inscription in a book given to him by Clarence: it reads “no man is a failure who has friends”.
So what’s not to like? Some critics question the film’s status as a warm-hearted celebration of life, suggesting that it is really a tragedy, portraying an individual crushed by the trivialities of parochial life. The man who was going to transform the world becomes a glorified bank clerk, scraping by in a small town while real life goes on elsewhere.
This view seems to me one-eyed at best. It operates on the highly questionable assumption that personal happiness should be our main ambition (a belief to which no Christian can assent). Of course George has unfulfilled dreams and secret sadnesses. Which of us does not? Yet he leads a good life, despite his disappointments and faults. He is a loving husband and father, a devoted son, a steadfast friend and a decent bank manager. His world – the little world of Bedford Falls – is an immeasurably greater place with him in it. He excels in the heroism of everyday life; he shows the difference one man can make.
Others criticise George on utilitarian grounds, arguing that he has made a moral miscalculation by remaining at home to help a small number of people, when he could have benefited millions by building bridges and skyscrapers. George is right, however, to conclude that his direct and clear moral duties to his family and his neighbours – real people with whom he is involved in existing networks of love, friendship and reciprocity – outweigh an indirect obligation to possibly increase the wellbeing of distant strangers. In his essay “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”, GK Chesterton notes that “We have to love our neighbour because he is there … He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is routinely accused of sentimentality, of encouraging excessive or glib emotion. But at heart it is a morally serious story. You might even say that it is a morally serious film disguised as a sentimental one (in contrast to a good many films which are the exact opposite). Woven throughout George’s story is the recognition that we cannot have all the good things we would like in life, and so our ambitions and loves must be ordered and prioritised correctly. Its realistic portrayal of the sometimes steep cost of doing the right thing is entirely anti-sentimental.
George succeeds by committing himself to the concrete and the particular, and comes to understand the paradoxical and deeply Christian truth that to make a positive difference as an individual you need to let go of attachment to yourself.