It’s a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart, is arguably the ultimate seasonal movie. James Oliver examines the darkness within and insists Frank Capra’s masterwork is a film for life, not just for Christmas.

If you know It's a Wonderful Life and given its ubiquity at Christmas-tide it's likely that you do—you might think it's all a bit wrongheaded to call it a 'cult movie'. Cult movies, after all, are more usually dark, obscure films, not popular family favourites.

Yet closer inspection shows that it well deserves the 'cult' tag. Let's deal with the popularity issue first.

Upon original release in 1946, It's a Wonderful Life was a great big flop. Its current popularity was hard won, by way of multiple TV screenings. It only came to enjoy mainstream acceptance after paying its dues as an authentic cult object.

Nor is it quite the ultimate feel-good film that it is commonly supposed to be. Although it culminates in a moment of precious redemption, this is a very dark film indeed, one that trades in feelings precious few Hollywood films even acknowledge, let alone explore.
 

“This is grim, grim stuff… How many films drive their main character to the point he is prepared to take his own life?"
 

That darkness is evident even in outline. Our hero is George Bailey, played by James Stewart. Things have gone wrong for George—so wrong that he means to kill himself, and on Christmas Eve too.

George has faced a lifetime of frustration. He's the would-be explorer who's barely left his hometown of Bedford Falls, denied even the chance to fight in the war due to a disability.

This is grim, grim stuff. How many films—let alone Hollywood films—even allow for failure, let alone place it front and centre? How many films drive their main character to the point he is prepared to take his own life?

Of course George lives. The intervention of a guardian angel reveals what the world would have been like had he never lived and George sees how much he has achieved.

It's a Wonderful Life
Image via RKO productions

Along the way it tests some of America's most cherished values (the sanctity of small town life, the resilience of its menfolk) with unusual honesty and even ambivalence. Almost uniquely for a Hollywood movie, the film's villain (bad old Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore) goes unpunished at the end.

In our cynical, ironic age, it's easy to zero in on this blackness and pretend we're seeing things that went over the heads of the more naïve audiences of yesteryear.

According to this reading, It's a Wonderful Life is a 'sentimental' film, one so frightened of the issues it raises that it tacks on a corny happy ending.

This, of course, is utter hogwash.

It's a Wonderful Life
Image via RKO productions

This is a movie made by people returning from war, an experience that plainly affected them profoundly. Director Frank Capra, a comedy specialist in the years before the war had produced films for the military, notably the Why We Fight series. 

His star, James Stewart, had been even closer to combat, flying over twenty bombing raids over Germany (in daylight). While he came back to Hollywood afterwards, he wasn't sure if he could continue with the privileged, trivial life of an actor after the things he'd seen.

It's a Wonderful Life is part of a run of films that explores the uncertainties of a nation that has been irrevocably changed, in so many ways, by war. (In fact, it even began shooting on the exact same day as William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, the emblematic film of those years.)

Those same feelings fed into the gloomy film noir cycle; there's more than a touch of noir about It's a Wonderful Life, most obviously in the scenes of George seeing what Bedford Falls would look like without him, when the lighting is low and the streets are mean.

It's a wonderful life
Image via RKO productions

Capra knew exactly what he was doing with this film and anyone who thinks it is 'sentimental' or 'corny' isn't watching properly. Sentimentality is unearned emotion, and Capra earns every moment, including that happy ending.

It's precisely because he never denies—and even stresses—the frustrations and humiliations that can drive a man to throw it all away that the film is so moving, showing how hope can survive, even at the darkest moment.

It is a work of awesome, open-hearted humanity, a film for life, not just for Christmas.

 

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