Ask an astute moviegoer or film buff the last time they watched “It’s A Wonderful Life” and they’ll tell you a year or two ago, likely when it grazed across their TV screen on Christmas Eve. Everyone is familiar with heartwarming story of this wintertime movie, even though it’s been a decent amount of time since they welcomed George Bailey into their homes. Heck, people who haven’t seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” know what it’s about, as the Frank Capra flick has been parodied, referenced and humbly homaged in countless movies and TV shows.
But when you do sit down with this movie again, already well aware of the inspirational messages and feel good charm about to come your way, you will be unexpectedly struck by a masterful piece of filmmaking Americana. It’s one of the finest stories ever told on the silver screen, a spoonful of cinematic magic, a testament to the movies and their undying ability not just to inspire us, but to surprise us, even when we already know what’s coming.
The film follows the life of George Bailey, a popular, noble, idealistic young man with a beautiful, intelligent wife, a swell of upbeat children, and a towns-full of individuals proud to call themselves a friend. But behind George’s firm handshake and bright, cheery grin lurks regret and what-could-have-beens about his past. George never wanted to live in this town or to fall into this career, but little rocks in his life’s path pushed him to his current situation. This is the triumph and tragedy of George Bailey: He is the beacon of hope and joy in this town, even though there is no light here to guide his true passion or purpose.
Jimmy Stewart accomplishes a remarkable feat with his not-so-everyman role. Stewart effectively makes George both martyr and neighbor, a hero and a human. Standing at George’s side is Mary Hatch (played by Donna Reed), an optimistic woman who shares many of George’s eccentricities while serving as the sturdy bedrock of their marriage. Stewart and Reed are pure chemistry, not in a world-ending, passionate romance way, but an exemplar of a hopeful but obtainable American marriage, the kind that Frank Capra clearly values and hopes audiences value as well. One doesn’t really look back at “It’s a Wonderful Life” and think that it has one of the best romances in Hollywood history, but I implore you to watch that “rope around the moon” scene and try not to think of that special someone with whom you’d want to share a bite of lunar love.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a feat of storytelling, planting crucial pieces of plot that sprout into genuine, dramatic moments. Its primary characters sometimes can sometimes seem too idealistic or morally-astute, and the film almost feels overly preachy in its infamous alternate reality scene where literally every building in town is either a bar or a late night dance club. But this movie is wholly aware of its role as a fantasy, it exists to be a slice of escapism and inspiration. We watch this movie to become renewed with the power of hope, to know that we can be George Bailey with all of his joys if we just take a moment to turn our ear and listen to the needs of those around us.