Greatest Christmas movie ever? Forget Die Hard. Don’t even mention Shane Black. And Nightmare before Christmas? Pfft. Get the fuck outta here. It’s A Wonderful Life is the best geeky Christmas movie ever, hands down. And I can hear some of you now “Geeky? What’s so geeky about It’s A Wonderful Life?” and “But I don’t like traditional Christmas movies. It has too much touchy-feel, sappy, bullshit.” And to all of you I say – shut your pie holes and sit down, I’mma learn you something today. It’s A Wonderful Life, despite its reputation, is not the movie most of you think it is. It is not the heartwarming tale of love and family and the power of god. It is a classic sci-fi tale set in an idyllic small town which examines greed, human indifference, and power and cost of self sacrifice. It’s as if Stephen King and Ray Bradbury went back in time and made sweet, sweet love and gave birth to a Christmas baby just for us.
The Story of Our Little Love Child…
Released in 1946, It’s A Wonderful Life is the story of man determined to take his own life on Christmas Eve. That’s right, most of the movie is about watching a guy slowly watch his life fall apart until he just can’t take it anymore. Merry-Fuckling -Christmas. George Bailey has spent his entire life in the idyllic town of Bedford Falls. Over the years he has let go of every dream he has had to protect the people he loves from a monster of capitalism in the form of and old man in a wheelchair – Mr. Potter. Potter has tightened his grip on Bedford Falls until one of the few things he doesn’t own is the Bailey family business, Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. In a surprisingly topical fashion, the Building and Loan represents a fight against the 1%. Not only does Potter not own it, it consistently provides aid to the townsfolk that would otherwise be under Potter’s thumb. George Bailey wants nothing to do with Potter, the Building and Loan, or even Bedford Falls. And yet the task of stemming Potter’s tide of evil corporate bullshit has been thrust upon him. And each year he watches as Potter takes control of the town bit by bit.
A Bunch of Sad Old Bastards…
The town of Bedford Falls has since become the blueprint for small town America. You can see its echoes in movies like Gremlins and books like Stephen King’s IT. It is filled with characters who, while rarely corrupt or evil, are not as simple and kind as they appear.
James Stewart by this time had perfected his “Aw shucks” good guy routine. He uses it here to both embody the nature of George Bailey and to subvert our expectations of him. George isn’t all lollipops and rainbows. He wants to drink, and get laid, and explore the world. But, he can’t escape his own sense of decency. He wants a life of excitement but he can’t escape domesticity . He resents the wholesome life he’s in and yet he fights so hard to protect it.
There is a depth to the character that the genial Stewart doesn’t intentionally reveal. He’s always holding something back. When decades of putting other people first and constantly doing the right thing leads him to bankruptcy and possible criminal charges George decides to commit suicide. The selfishness of father doing so on Christmas and viciousness of his words before hand underlines the deeper emotions that Stewart repeatedly hints at through his performance.
It’s at this point that a Grade A fuck up of an Angel named Clarence Odbody is tasked with saving poor George. Clarence has had 200 years to do something of value to earn his wings and hasn’t done it. How much of a walking disaster do you have to be to fail at something constantly for 200 years? I, mean it’s not like he had to work to pay his mortgage or something. This is what is so brilliant about It’s A Wonderful Life, underneath its thin veneer of wholesomeness is cast regular misfits. They are not over the top super slackers, like in Clerks or Guardians of the Galaxy. They are really ordinary people. Its Norman Rockwell with a bit more sadness and regret.
You Are Entering Another Dimension…
Rod Serling probably got the weirdest hard on watching this movie. It follows the template of like 90% of the the Twilight Zone. Most of the movie revolves around taking the normal, making extremely relatable, and then twisting it around. George has lead an extraordinarily normal life. He has done nothing great. He speaks his mind, he holds to his morals, and he stands up for what he believes in. Which is admirable but not heroic in the traditional sense.
When others go off to war, George is stuck at home. When his friends and family are traveling to new places and living exciting lives, he’s living a quiet life. His life seems rather meaningless. Why wouldn’t his family be better off without him?
When he decides to kill himself, Clarence the Angel shows George what the world would be like without him. What we’re shown is a rather dystopian version of Bedford Falls. It clearly draws on the Charles Dickens’s ghost of Christmas Yet-To Come, but in a wider context. The result is really one of the earliest examples of a movie that deals with parallel worlds. If you replaced the angles with time traveling aliens it would be a straight up science fiction story. Which is pretty much what Richard Kelly did with Donnie Darko (which BTW is an excellent film to pair with Its A Wonderful Life.) In fact, if your not christian the difference between angels and aliens is kind of splitting hairs.
The concept of the value of a ordinary person is one that Doctor Who has run with since Russell T. Davies first took over and yet hasn’t managed to do as effectively as this little film. The character development in the first two acts is so strong that when we get to the parallel Bedford Falls we really feel the impact of a George-less world. It holds up against some of the best What-if/Alternate world stories that Marvel and DC have ever produced.
Then What the hell does this have to do with Christmas?
While present; God, Christianity, even Christmas take a back seat in this Christmas movie. The movie is largely a character piece, setting up motivations and developing the cast. The characters are charming and engaging.
Despite it’s wholesome reputation there are no simple caricatures here. Its reputation of being wholesome isn’t from its use of idyllic optimism, though there is plenty of that. It is from its entirely human moments. When young George Bailey is being beaten by his alcoholic boss, the subtle flinching of the girl silently watching is chilling. When Mary Bailey offers up the honeymoon money to the town you see why George married her.
The way the characters speak to one another, touch each other, what they do what they say is so very human. We can see our loved ones in Bedford Falls. We can see ourselves. And for it some scenes are a straight up gut punch of emotion. Worse we can see our own dead dreams, our failures, our regrets. But in the end we see we see that George is loved, appreciated, and even cherished by those around him. And fuck me if that isn’t the real value of the holiday.