I had seen so many clips and parodies of 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life that although I’d never watched the movie from beginning to end, I thought it possible that I had actually seen it, albeit in chunks and out of order. After all, it’s a Christmas staple; we’ve all seen that clip of Jimmy Stewart shouting “Merry Christmas!” while running down Main Street in Bedford Falls. But I had never seen the movie in its entirety, because nobody ever made me. In my 30 years on the planet, no one had said, “Oh my God, you have to see it!” and sat me down and showed it to me, so I assumed It’s A Wonderful Life maybe wasn’t that good: People just watched it because it was a Christmas movie that had been around forever. After all, if it was so brilliant, I would have been shamed into seeing it by now, right?
My parents, who are the people in my life who make sure I’ve seen the classics, don’t like the movie because they find it frustrating. “George Bailey does everything good and right in his life, and he gets dumped on. It just drives me crazy!” they say. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I took their word for it and assumed I could get by knowing what little I did about the movie. After all, I don’t think you have to have seen A Christmas Story in full to get the idea of what that’s about—World War II-era nostalgia, Red Ryder BB gun, “You’ll shoot your eye out,” etc. Plus, it often isn’t Christmas movies themselves that makes us love them, it’s the memory of watching them when we were younger. Maybe without the nostalgia factor, It’s A Wonderful Life wouldn’t be that essential.
As it happened, the night I watched the movie was straight out of a Christmas card. The snow fell thick outside our window as my husband and I sat down to watch it, and the city seemed to quiet down. Our small tree twinkled and we lit a fire in the fireplace and got cozy on the couch under a blanket, so the movie was off to an auspicious start before we even pressed play.
I didn’t know what to expect from the film other than merciless sentimentality, for which I braced myself. I had been told that I would cry during It’s A Wonderful Life, but as a staunch non-crier, I found that unlikely, especially as I already knew how the film would end. Of course, I got going shortly after the opening credits, listening to George’s kids praying for their troubled daddy. Dammit! Sentimentality 1, Claire 0. Would the rest of the movie be like this, though? Sad, pious kiddies and all?
Fortunately, no. I found an actual film, not just a Christmas movie, and a pretty good one at that. It’s certainly an emotional roller-coaster ride for a movie about a small town: In one scene, young George and Mr. Gower sob in the back of the druggist’s shop after the old pharmacist, wracked over the death of his son, nearly accidentally kills a client with the wrong prescription. I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course, especially by the film’s unexpected smart, romantic moments: Frank Capra directed it, and he’s behind one of my all-time favorite romantic movies, It Happened One Night. It’s A Wonderful Life shares some of its sharp, sophisticated romantic comedy, which I wasn’t expecting.
I always envisioned Mary as the glistening-eyed lace-collared wife standing by her redeemed husband. I never expected her to actually have a personality, let alone spunk. I enjoyed watching George and Mary in the pool, the naughty way George refused to give her her robe while she hid nude in the shrubs, and the moment they realized they were in love with each other in that beautifully framed shot as they share a phone.
Here’s a question that plagued me: Was George really right to keep discarding his dreams over and over to work at the Building & Loan? Sure, he was keeping the family business alive, but his father never seemed to love the Building & Loan that much, nor did he beg George to keep the business going. If anything, Bailey Sr. seemed to envy the life that George continued to put on hold. Of course, at the end of the movie, we realize that George was responsible for keeping Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville, but up until the point where he and Mary start finding places for people to live, the company seems to vex him more than it fulfills him. So would he have been a bad man for going on with the plan he had for himself? His brother Harry was never portrayed as a bad man for leaving the company, after all.
Still, I shed a few more tears watching the people of Bedford Falls give money back to Bailey, largely because of how happy they were to do it. That’s what makes it a Christmas movie, not the holiday-themed, calligraphied opening credits, the snow, or the “Merry Christmas!” It’s the spirit of goodwill, not so much George’s, but the goodness the film finds in humankind in general. George showed it to the people of Bedford Falls, and they returned it in kind. And that’s what the holiday is all about.