As truthful as the day it was released, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) is the very example of what film critics would later come to describe as “Capra-esque.” Now firmly part of the American lexicon, the term has been defined by Webster’s (and other sources) as “promoting the positive social effects of individual acts of courage.” It references of course director-writer Frank Capra, known for his cinematic portraits of the common man standing up against the system.
That’s certainly the case in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as a banking executive confronts the forces of corruption in his own hometown. As popular as the film is now, that wasn’t always so. Though it received five Oscar nominations (going zero for five), it failed at the box office and fell into obscurity. The film’s rediscovery began in the 1970s, when TV stations started airing it at Christmastime because its copyright had lapsed, and the film could be broadcast without cost. Now it is as much a part of the yuletide season as Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (1954).
The following is Roger Ebert’s Great Movie essay, from 1997, on “It’s a Wonderful Life.” For the CSO Special Concert presentation Dec. 9-11, orchestra members will perform Dimtri Tiomkin’s newly restored, complete score (which was altered significantly for the film’s original release). As you listen to Tiomkin’s classic soundtrack, just remember: “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
BY ROGER EBERT
What is remarkable about “It’s a Wonderful Life” is how well it holds up over the years; it’s one of those ageless movies, like “Casablanca” or “The Third Man,” that improves with age. Some movies, even good ones, should be seen only once. When we know how they turn out, they’ve surrendered their mystery and appeal. Other movies can be viewed an indefinite number of times. Like great music, they improve with familiarity. “It’s a Wonderful Life” falls in the second category.
The movie works like a strong and fundamental fable, sort of A Christmas Carol in reverse: Instead of a mean old man being shown scenes of happiness, we have a hero who plunges into despair.
The hero, of course, is George Bailey (James Stewart), a man who never quite makes it out of his quiet birthplace of Bedford Falls. As a young man, he dreams of shaking the dust from his shoes and traveling to far-off lands, but one thing and then another keeps him at home — especially his responsibility to the family savings and loan association, which is the only thing standing between Bedford Falls and the greed of Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the avaricious local tycoon.
George marries his high-school sweetheart (Donna Reed, in her first starring role), settles down to raise a family and helps half of the poor folks in town buy homes where they can raise their own. Then, when George’s absentminded uncle (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces some bank funds during the Christmas season, it looks as if the evil Potter will have his way after all. George loses hope and turns mean (even his face seems to darken). He despairs and is standing on a bridge, contemplating suicide, when an Angel Second Class named Clarence (Henry Travers) saves him and shows him what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without him.
Frank Capra never intended “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be pigeonholed as a “Christmas picture.” This was the first movie he made after returning from service in World War II, and he wanted it to be special —a celebration of the lives and dreams of America’s ordinary citizens, who tried the best they could to do the right thing by themselves and their neighbors. After becoming Hollywood’s poet of the common man in the 1930s with an extraordinary series of populist parables (“It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “You Can’t Take It With You”), Capra found the idea for “It’s a Wonderful Life” in a story by Philip Van Doren Stern that had been gathering dust on studio shelves.
For Stewart, also recently back in civilian clothes, the movie was a chance to work again with Capra, for whom he had played Mr. Smith. The original trailer for the movie played up the love angle between Stewart and Reed and played down the message. But the movie was not a box office hit, and was all but forgotten before the public domain prints began to make their rounds.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is not just a heart-warming “message picture.” The film’s conclusion makes such an impact that some of the earlier scenes may be overlooked — such as the slapstick comedy of the high-school hop, where the dance floor opens over a swimming pool, and Stewart and Reed accidentally jitterbug right into the water. (This covered pool was not a set but actually existed at Beverly Hills High School). There’s also the drama of George rescuing his younger brother from a fall through the ice, and the scene where Reed loses her bathrobe and Stewart ends up talking to the shrubbery. The telephone scene — where an angry Stewart and Reed find themselves helplessly drawn toward each other — is wonderfully romantically charged. And the darker later passages have an elemental power, as the drunken George Bailey staggers through a town he wants to hate, and then revisits it through the help of a gentle angel. Even the corniest scenes — those galaxies that wink while the heavens consult on George’s fate — work because they are so disarmingly simple. A more sophisticated approach might have seemed labored.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” did little for Frank Capra’s postwar career, and indeed he never regained the box office magic that he had during the 1930s. Such later films as “State of the Union” (1948) and “Pocketful of Miracles” (1961) have the Capra touch but not the magic, and the director did not make another feature film after 1961. But he remained hale and hearty until a stroke slowed him in the late 1980s; he died in 1991.
At a seminar with some film students in the 1970s, he was asked if there were still a way to make movies about the kinds of values and ideals found in the Capra films.
“Well, if there isn’t,” he said, “we might as well give up.”
Reprinted with permission of the Ebert Co. Ltd.