The Rear-View Mirror: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Bear with me, even though it’s still a few weeks before Christmas, but there’s no way we can’t talk about Frank Capra’s eternal holiday classic now that the Rear-View Mirror is reflecting the year 1946 back at us. When Frank Capra is mentioned, it’s easy to think of a certain kind of corny sentimentality, doubly so when the film in question is It’s a Wonderful Life. The fairy-tale ending, the song about lassoing the moon, the twee story about how an angel gets his wings whenever a bell rings, and Zuzu’s damn petals: it’s easy to be dismissive of the film. Easy and wrong.

What makes the film work, and what makes it so enduring, is its darkness. Much like that other supposedly corny holiday classic, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life presents its main character, and the audience, with a what-if scenario. In this case, it’s “What if I had never been born?”, and the world in which George Bailey, that quintessential James Stewart character, had never existed is a darkly familiar one, where the powerful and corrupt go unchallenged, where lives are lost and fairness and justice are dim flickering lights in the far distance.

So far, so grim – but the world that George wishes he hadn’t been born into isn’t all smiles and lollipops either. George has many reasons to want to end his life, his despair is palpable and understandable. He isn’t quite a modern Job, but his struggles are real and believable. In fact, the unfairness of the world against which George struggles may make it darker than the what-if scenario he is shown by his guardian angel Clarence. The world where George Bailey had never been born is too much of a caricature, not least in its depiction of the women in George’s life: one ends up a lady of easy virtue without his correcting presence, the other becomes a permanently frightened spinster, which is somewhat problematic, to put it mildly. (Contrast this with that other iconic James Stewart film, Vertigo, where Scottie, the James Stewart character, has a supremely negative effect on the woman in his life because he exists.)

The world in which George exists, on the other hand, isn’t a caricature of America gone bad, but it is the world that drives him to despair, because the deck is stacked in favour of the greedy and corrupt. The film ends with something of a Christmas miracle, but that miracle doesn’t fundamentally change things. George’s doubts and despair are relatable, his deep frustration won’t just go away because of one happy ending. The world Capra depicts isn’t one that is inherently good, it is just one where good is possible – but it is possible. And this both makes It’s a Wonderful Life a darker film and a more genuinely hopeful than is sometimes acknowledged.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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