Every year on Christmas, I always catch the final half-hour of Frank Capra’s 1946 drama It’s a Wonderful Life on TV. It’s a climax that runs heavy with emotions, as George Bailey makes the ultimate wish that he had never been born and sees the unfortunate repercussions that come with said wish. Capra’s film teaches us that no matter how awful our lives may get, someone out there cares about our well-being and we shouldn’t push those people away when we’re at an all-time low. That notion isn’t the only aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life that has stood the test of time; the themes of faith and geopolitics continue to resonate as today’s societal climate heavily emphasizes international relations and thoughtful treatment toward those in different working classes. However you may connect to It’s a Wonderful Life, its sacred role as the quintessential American Christmas movie will endure.
The religious ties of It’s a Wonderful Life are established early on by beginning with friends and family members of George praying to heaven that God will help him. Throughout the film, George’s faith is tested in many ways, from being unable to serve his country in World War II to facing financial ruin. He faces a great deal of adversity, and still, his scruples lead him to put his dreams and aspirations aside to help others. For example, before deciding to begin college, he desired to travel the world. That plan becomes stalled when he has to deal with personal matters such as his ailing father and the Building & Loan nearly going out of business. This leads to his downward spiral and consideration of throwing his life away. His guardian angel shows George what life would be like if he never lived. During his stint as a spiritual non-entity, George regains his faith and takes back his contemplation of suicide.
Geopolitics and socioeconomic status play instrumental roles in It’s a Wonderful Life. The former, in particular, focuses on the international relations of World War II and the impact it has on the homefront. George wants to fight in the war for his country but is turned down due to the hearing loss in his left ear. Harry, his younger brother, ends up fighting in the war and wins the medal of honor for taking down a kamikaze plane. George and everyone at Bedford Falls take immense pride in Harry’s heroism. Mentions of the war occur throughout, as the movie showcases war footage and illustrates how citizens back in the states contributed to helping the military by rationing tires, gasoline, shoes, automobiles, etc. The war also makes George reflect on his old dream of seeing the world. Whether traveling for leisure or fighting for his country, George never gets any further than Bedford Falls, and that is something he has to reconcile with his sense of purpose.
The film’s antagonist, Mr. Potter, flaunts his wealth time and time again in his nefarious crusade to ruin the Bailey family business, his sole competitor. He tries to buy out the Building & Loan, get George to work for him, and, ultimately, send him to jail for “misplacing” the $8,000. Mr. Potter is the 1%, hungry for power and wary of competition. Nothing satisfies him in life other than getting a paycheck. He is a simple villain, but by no means does that make him less hatable. George is Potter’s antithesis, simply by putting himself before others. The criticism of the out-of-touch few isn’t particularly complex, but it helps to reinforce the idea that good character stems from earnestness and humility as opposed to blunt power.
Finally, how can one talk about It’s a Wonderful Life without bringing up its overarching feel-good message? Everyone matters to someone. Right as George is at his lowest, he makes the ultimate wish of never being born. As he sees what has become of Bedford Falls and of the people in his life, he wishes to have his life back; and he receives it. It’s a thought we all may have wondered at one point in our lives, but it’s something we might be scared to actually see with our own eyes. George notices that if he was never born, people would’ve suffered or even died, and the world would be a darker place.
The ending becomes even more emotional when George sees many people show up at his house to donate money, including his brother Harry, who just came home from serving in the war. The whole scene hits harder because it’s set on Christmas Eve. It’s the time of the year to revel in love. George’s peers are giving and putting others before themselves, just as George has been doing his whole life. The joy in his face – that giant, timeless Jimmy Stewart grin – makes for an ecstatic conclusion. One can’t help but be overcome with emotion. His gratitude is triumphant. It’s a Wonderful Life resonates on a cultural level, but more profoundly, it celebrates the value of life.