The film itself can boast of several exceptional, if mysterious, qualities. First, its lucid script is a near-perfect rendition of a simple, profound question: How would things be different in your world if you didn’t exist? It’s not usually thought of this way, but beneath its sunny sentimentality, It’s a Wonderful Life is an extended exploration of failure, anxiety, and death—qualifying it as film noir. What saves it from maudlin sentimentality is the Christmas Eve backdrop—the bright canvas of hope on which Capra paints the melancholy portrait of George Bailey.
Although Capra shot the film in chronological order, the story proper does not begin until four-fifths of the way in, just after George breaks down in front of his family and kicks over the physical reminder of his forgotten dreams: his model bridge. When George flees to Martini’s Bar to drown his sorrows, he finds that sorrow is an able swimmer. Mary calls around town asking for prayers, which loops us back to the start of the movie. Eighty percent of It’s a Wonderful Life is a flashback, starting with an earthly-minded heaven and ending with a heavenly-minded earth.
The film’s second marvelous aspect is the four- to five-minute span in which it deftly lays in three prefigurements, one after the other, of things to come. One of George’s first lines (in the frozen-pond scene) is “And here comes the scare-baby, my kid brother, Harry Bailey.” George rescues Harry after he falls through the ice, and Harry (Todd Karns) grows up to be the picture of bravery as a Navy pilot. George’s rescue of the Blaine family from the poison mistakenly prescribed by the drunken druggist Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner) foreshadows George’s eventual rescue of the whole town of Bedford Falls, which he can save only because he never left town, repeatedly renouncing his dreams of traveling the globe. Finally, our first introduction of Peter “Pop” Bailey (Samuel S. Hinds) shows George defending his father against the angry humbugging of Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Old man Potter comes to learn that fireball Junior Bailey is a tougher foe than worn-out Senior.
Third in the film’s list of wonders: How about the pitch-perfect casting? It’s a Wonderful Life is well-nigh unimaginable with other actors, so we smile to learn that Ginger Rogers was first offered the role of Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) and that both Vincent Price and Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy) were on the short list to play Mr. Potter, whom we can see as an amplified version of George’s selfish side, his psychological doppelgänger. And it’s not only the stars who were perfectly cast. Crowds are integral to almost every Capra movie. Every walk-on bit player, every extra, received directorial notes from Capra. Even Bedford Falls is a kind of character, one that might be insecure about not being New York or even Buffalo.
Fourth, at the center of the movie’s strange magic stands Jimmy Stewart. His tour-de-force performance put a dagger through the heart of his pre-WWII typecasting as the screwball-comedy male lead. Capra tapped into a depth of passion and pathology that would mark Stewart’s later work with Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Anthony Mann.
Finally, there’s the Catholic thing. Capra never fully lapsed from the Italian Catholicism of his childhood, and his films are frequently sprinkled with biblical and spiritual allusions. George Bailey embodies the Christian idea of redemption through suffering. More Job than Jesus, George descends into an icy despair — triggered by Uncle Billy’s innocent forgetfulness — that is only the beginning of a long and trying holiday of darkness. By the end, as we learn, he emerges not merely “better.” He is purged, exalted. He has fallen upward to a great height.
As with many a Capra movie, It’s a Wonderful Life is about the money and yet not about the money. Lucre is a curse, and it also bestows grace. The final scene in which friend after friend hustles into the Bailey living room to disgorge cash gifts onto the card table — complete with the telegrammed “advance of $25,000” from Sam “Hee Haw” Wainwright (Frank Albertson) — delivers one of the biggest emotional wallops in movie history. Capra lets fly one goose-bumpy climax after another, all of which are capped off by the surprise entrance of a resplendent Harry Bailey, who sums up the delirium: “A toast . . . to my big brother, George. The richest man in town!” If you don’t have at least a lump in your throat, you’d better check your pulse.
Scorned at birth, Frank Capra’s masterpiece forever belongs to those for whom he made it: we the people. For no movie is a failure that has friends.
— Patrick Coffin is a radio host and author. He blogs at patrickcoffin.net.