It’s fitting that It’s a Wonderful Life went from beloved Christmas staple to full-blown American institution during the Reagan years, when the cozily reactionary proclivities of Frank Capra’s movie seemed most in synch with the ostentatious conservatism of the times. Yet it was also during the 1980s that the film received its most caustic analysis, in the form of a Saturday Night Live sketch which imagined the classic’s “lost ending.” When the people of Bedford Falls ditch singing “Auld Lang Syne” and become a torch-carrying lynch mob howling for Mr. Potter’s blood (“You made two mistakes, you double-crossed and you left me alive,” Dana Carvey’s George Bailey snarls), it’s not just great snark, but also a rich glimpse at the vicious darkness that has always dwelled under the film’s benign textures.
Without overlooking its lapses into populist bathos, it’s necessary to rescue It’s a Wonderful Life from its spot at the centerpiece of untouchable American “classics.” As with The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (surely some kind of troika of sacred screen monsters), uncritical reverence both inflates the film’s magnitude and robs it of its most interesting elements. Despite the fin de siècle gentility given its small-town setting, this is decisively a postwar work, never more visible than in the balance of hope and despair achieved by James Stewart as George Bailey. This was his first role in five years since enlisting in the Air Force, and Capra introduces his character with a freeze-frame that all but summarizes the actor’s gawky persona, yet the rest of the picture gradually introduces the underlying anxiety—the subtle hysteria of a homespun performer who’s seen horrors—that Anthony Mann would later bring to the fore in his great cycle of ’50s westerns.
Indeed, Stewart’s George is something of a cowboy, or at least a wanderer. He dreams of leaving home and traveling the world, and in the early scenes he’s full of piss and vinegar. Inexorably, the picture proceeds to tame the roamer in him, draining out his youthful vigor through a series of domesticating events. When George’s father dies, it falls to him to rescue the family’s savings and loan association from being swallowed by desiccated plutocrat Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), Bedford Falls’s own Mr. Burns. The hero’s settling down is a rigid standby of classical American cinema, but what’s striking in It’s a Wonderful Life is how ambiguously the movement toward the stability of family life is rendered. Few scenes have expressed the suppressions and compromises upon which domesticity is erected as beautifully as the close-up of George, anguished in a mix of regret and acceptance, admitting his place by the side of childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed). George’s subsequent achievements as a family man and community representative are scarcely negligible, yet his resentment never quite dissipates, it merely stays welled in him until something, like Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplacing the company deposit, causes it to spill over.
How can a movie so full of pain and frustration be venerated as simply, glowingly jolly? Mainly adduced from Dickens, Capra’s structure is also reminiscent of Bible stories, with George, like several of Capra’s other protagonists, undergoing what Andrew Sarris described as a “melodramatic parable of near crucifixion.” It’s no coincidence that H.B. Warner, Cecil B. DeMille’s original Jesus, has a prominent role in the large cast, but George’s faith-testing pileup of misfortunes brings him closer to Job than to Christ: Distraught at a bar, his prayers are answered by a sock to the jaw. He has been heard, however, and divine help comes as “second class” angel Clarence (Henry Travers) literally drops from above to save him from the edge of the abyss. The appearance of a cloying angel in the midst of so much desolation is an element that, like Spielberg’s final movement in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, can either make or break a film. Yet Clarence is essential here to usher in the film’s great shadow sequence, a Dantean descent in which George is given a vision of how things would have been if he had never existed. Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, crime and sleaze run bare-assed, the people he loved are either dead or wicked—a world fit for a Christmas postcard is suddenly full of tropes from horror and film noir.
It’s typical of the film’s populism that the loss of a single person is portrayed as a cosmic imbalance, enough to turn an idyll into an inferno. Although Bedford Falls and Pottersville are offered as the safely separated yin and yang of a community, both are equally believable as views of a society where order is suddenly revealed as precarious at best, just as George and Mr. Potter have more in common than it first appears. “You once called me a warped, frustrated old man…Now, you’re a warped, frustrated young man,” the ogre tells the hero, and the film can’t refute him. After such troubling discoveries, the famous climactic affirmation comes off like an escape hatch: It’s a wonderful life, the message goes, and be content with it because it can always get worse. Still, there’s no denying the last passage’s cathartic power, charged by Stewart’s tremendous depth of feeling. It’s Stewart’s emotional force that dries up the material’s potential schmaltz, modulating from the romantic who offers to lasso the moon for his beloved to the disgruntled wreck who later asks her, “Why did we have to have so many children?” Capra views the two facets with the same intensity, and films accordingly. Maybe it takes a filmmaker so fascinated with the American Dream to see how close it can be to a nightmare.