I’ve probably seen Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) a half a dozen times. I watch it every Christmas, and have done so each year since I was in Grade 12. There’s a simple reason for it: it makes you feel good!
To me, it is the perfect Christmas movie; it spreads joy and wonder to the audience. By reminding you of the wonderful little things in life, the film gives you a fresh start, relieving you of the stress that has accumulated over the year. One leaves the film bestowed with a keener perspective of what really matters in life — friends, family, and the lovely little things that make up life!
Frank Capra is one my favourite auteur’s, despite being fundamentally different from my other favourites. He is not a poet or artistic/visual genius, such as that of Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, and Kurosawa, and he is not a masterful writer or philosophical thinker, such as that of Bergman and Bresson; yet, I find myself strangely attached to all of his films. What I have realized is that Capra is a genius of character. He makes you feel emotionally connected and attached to the primary character(s) of his films, whether it’s George Bailey (James Stewart, It’s A Wonderful Life), Jefferson Smith (James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant, Arsenic & Old Lace) or any of the other major characters of his films.
This emotional connection, I have realized, comes about in two ways, both of which add depth to the characters. Firstly, through the story itself, Capra gives such dimension to the characters — their personality, their childhood experiences, their ambitions, etc.; one feels as if they know the characters personally. Secondly, he permeates that depth of character throughout the film, through tone and by the use of motifs. For example, the good, honest, and selfless George Bailey is permeated in Bedford Falls. Everything about Bedford Falls speaks to his character, as if it personifies George Bailey himself. This is expressed most directly by the fact that Bedford Falls doesn’t exist without George Bailey; in the world where George Bailey has never been born, Pottersville — a dark, dirty, sleazy slum —reigns.
Several motifs work harmoniously to continue building this emotional depth: George lighting the candle, while wishing for a million dollars, and saying “hot dog!” when it ignites; throwing rocks at the old home, of which he fixes up and lives in as a family man; the speech and future picture of George lassoing the moon; Sam Wainwright’s “eeh aww”; George’s dud ear, and plenty of other recurring aspects of the story are used in order to foster an emotional connection between the audience and George Bailey. In the end, one ostensibly feels the goodness, joy, selflessness, and wonder that consumes George Bailey; just as Christmas should, It’s A Wonderful Life spreads cheer to its audience, making it the perfect Christmas film!