- YEAR: 1946
- DIRECTOR: Frank Capra
- KEY ACTORS: James Stewart, Donna Reed
- CERTIFICATE: U
- IMDB SCORE: 8.6
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 94%
SEX SCORE: 2.5/5
✔️ This is absolutely definitely rewatchable! It has become a Christmas classic and is on TV nearly every year…
❌ But I don’t want to fuck the cast. It’s old-fashioned without the charm that makes me wish I’d loved back then and Jimmy Stewart is just…well…old. Regardless of his actual age!
❌ And similarly, it didn’t inspire fantasies. It’s just not that kind of film.
✔️ Surprisingly, this does pass the Bechdel Test. It’s a relatively dubious pass, qualifying with snatches of conversation that aren’t part of the main plot, but it does pass!
❓But is it sex positive? I’ve been unable to decide. Maybe yes, because there’s no shaming or obvious judgement and there’s a pretty risque scene when Mary loses her gown, but equally women are treated as wives or nothing so…half mark?
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: NowTV (free with subscription), Sky Cinema (free with subscription), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: suicide, emotional abuse]
So my Christmas movie series has extended slightly beyond the actual day but it is still December and still 2020 (just, thank God!) and my tree is still up so I think we can still discuss Christmas movies. And this movie is perhaps the ultimate Christmas classic! Thanks to a copyright lapse, It’s a Wonderful Life could be broadcast for free and so it was. Repeatedly. For years! Networks would use it to fill gaps in their schedules and it was impossible to escape from it for a long time. Through this constant exposure, it has now become ingrained into the popular culture and, for many of us, It’s a Wonderful Life has become part of our modern Christmas traditions.
Made shortly after World War II, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey (Stewart), a small town guy who dreams of escaping that small town and having adventures in exotic places, but who keeps being drawn back by responsibility – by the family business, by marriage and children, and by his community. When his uncle loses $8000 (the equivalent of over a hundred thousand dollars now so it was exceptionally careless of him to leave it wrapped in a newspaper) and threatens to ruin the family business, ultimately leading to the foreclosure of loans given to many people in the community, George contemplates taking his own life. Just as he is about to jump into the river, he is distracted and saved by Clarence, an angel (second class) who hasn’t yet won his wings. After George declares that life would be better if he hadn’t been born, Clarence shows him exactly what that would have looked like. Without all of the small interventions that George had made in the lives of the people in Bedford Falls and without his stewardship of the Buildings and Loan Company, Bedford Falls had become a completely different place and was now called Pottersville, after the villainous banker, Potter, who had been trying to take control of the Bailey’s company for years. Seeing how much he has impacted others lives, George realises how valuable he has been to his community and runs home to the embrace of his family, discovering that his wife Mary (Reed) has told everyone about his predicament and they have raised more than enough money to cover his debts and save the company. Full of joy, they celebrate Christmas together!
I’m always kind of interested in the legacy of It’s a Wonderful Life because it’s a surprisingly dark movie. As was exemplified when it was used in a punchline in an episode of Friends, it is only the last few minutes that stop this film from being hugely depressing! George spends the entire film abandoning his dreams to allow others to fulfill theirs and seems to have nothing to show for it. And he isn’t making these sacrifices happily – he complains and is dissatisfied and acts like a bit of an arsehole to the people who love him.
The famed happy ending is so dependent on George’s redemption from this pit of self-despair thanks to the support of his community and is so thick with sentiment that J. Edgar Hoover was convinced that it was a communist plot, ‘sneaking anti-American propaganda to the masses.’ The FBI agent watching felt It’s a Wonderful Life was a ‘rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers’ and a contemporary review in the New York Times in 1946 felt that, while Capra had ‘gone all out to show that it is really a family, friends and honest toil that make the “wonderful life”…the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it — its illusory concept of life.’ The people are too charming, the town is too perfect and so ‘somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.’ When looking at it like this, I find it hard to disagree with Andrew Gilchrist in his column on overrated films in the Guardian when he described it as a ‘picket fence of a film, nauseatingly wholesome as it trundles through 1940s America.’
I wonder if part of the problem comes from the fact that It’s a Wonderful Life is now so closely associated with Christmas that we do watch it for its sentiment and schmaltz and so forget that that’s not what it was supposed to be. As Roger Ebert wrote in 1999, ‘Frank Capra never intended It’s a Wonderful Life to be pigeonholed as a “Christmas picture.” This was the first movie he made after returning from service in World War II, and he wanted it to be special–a celebration of the lives and dreams of America’s ordinary citizens, who tried the best they could to do the right thing by themselves and their neighbors.’ Post-WW2 America was a strange and difficult place, especially for veterans. They had won! Fascism had been defeated and, unusually compared to much of the rest of the world, America wasn’t all that broken, war-torn and damaged. This should have been a time for celebration and excess! But the victory wasn’t without cost – thousands of people had died and those who did return home were undoubtedly haunted by what they had seen and done. Both Capra and Stewart had fought in Europe and, as Emily Van Der Werff noted when writing for Vox, It’s a Wonderful Life could be seen as one of many stories made by and ‘about men coming home from war and trying their damnedest to make their sacrifice worth something, by making the country a better, more moral place.’ Perhaps the FBI weren’t entirely wrong to be worried about the community spirit Capra was encouraging!
What interests me most watching It’s a Wonderful Life in 2020 is how much of what it’s selling feels woefully out of date, in a way that it perhaps wouldn’t have done even 20 years ago. It tells the story of a generation and a sense of community that just doesn’t exist any more. I am pleased that the community response to the COVID pandemic and lockdown has shown that, in times of crisis, It’s a Wonderful Life’s ‘not-so-subtle theme — that we are only as good as our ability to connect with those around us’ does still hold true, but role of the Building and Loans Company in the plot and the value placed on owning your own home to determine your place in the community feels wholly old-fashioned: ‘Young audiences in 1946, or 1976, could hear those lines [about how owning property fulfills a ‘fundamental urge’] and nod. Not now. The idea of young people owning their own place in the UK looks as distant and dated as the automobiles and clothes of prewar Bedford Falls.’ Since the 2008 financial crash, we also don’t need Potter to be such a caricature of a Bad Person to know that bankers are the enemy!
Of course, this is a sex and feminist movie blog so I have to talk about how this film is completely saturated in patriarchal oppression! Was it as obvious in 1946, before Second Wave Feminism? Or 1976 when it was on TV so often and women were starting to fight against the Patriarchy as well for their rights? Or is this simply a modern reading of a different time?
Because it’s not that big a stretch to view the whole movie as a representation of how the Patriarchy is shit for everyone. I know I’ve ranted a lot about misogyny and how the Patriarchy oppresses women, both cis and trans, but enforcing such a sexist hierarchy is also damaging to men. Most of George’s complaints in Its a Wonderful Life are derived from his inability to escape his role as the patriarch. Who is George if not an eldest son, a husband, a father, a community leader?
Writing about It’s a Wonderful Life, an article in The Artifice describes how ‘the father figure is socially perceived at the heart of the family with unquestionable authority and morality, and carries out American idealistic values of domesticity and financial success. The father provides solidity and income to support his family.’ And this is a hell of a responsibility! How can George follow his dreams and run away to far off exotic lands when he has been brought up to believe that it is both his job and his moral duty to ensure that everyone is taken care of? No matter how much he hates it, George has to stay – and the film doesn’t really suggest that George has any choice in the matter as leaving would be selfish and immoral. George’s role as the father figure is further emphasised by how many of the other characters are infantilised ‘like Clarence or Uncle Billy…they significantly depend on George to get them out of the troubles their naiveté have led them into.’ I don’t know whether it’s more a sign of how 1940s fashion made everyone look middle-aged to modern audiences but, even at 18, George looks like a grown up. He just looks responsible!
Which is why I really don’t like how he treats Mary and why I struggle to see It’s a Wonderful Life as romantic or wholesome. He acts more like a ‘moody teenager’ than the responsible adult he is otherwise shown to be. Despite making a point of showing how much of George’s happiness comes from his family, they are also a key part of his entrapment. REB, writing for The Artifice, felt that Mary was ‘the primary mechanism that entraps George in Bedford Falls. With her, George has to be a husband and father, ties that prevent him from acceding to his dreams.’ And, honestly, George’s reluctance to marry her is horribly off-putting. He goes from literally shouting that he will never marry to kissing her, before the film suddenly cuts to their wedding. Was this because the Hays Code forbade any kind of pre-marital action? Or was it to show how George was ‘always forced to do what he didn’t intend to do in the first place, [highlighting] again the social pressures that urge George to embrace the traditional family life.’
Perhaps I am at fault for expecting a film that is as old as my father to meet my current standards, but George’s behaviour towards Mary raises a lot of red flags! Meg McCabe lays it out in her essay on Medium about how ‘George and Mary’s First Kiss Was Not Romantic.’ Despite having great chemistry at the dance and on their walk home, the George who comes to Mary’s house a few years later when she has come back from college is ‘an asshole…He’s grumpy, irritable, and hardly engaging in conversation. He’s clearly taking his shit mood out on Mary, who is dropping romantic hints right and left.’ And this is when the red flags start appearing – Mary is trying so hard to cheer George up, trying unsuccessfully to ‘take responsibility for his happiness’ but they still argue and he storms out, only returning as he had forgotten his hat. Even when they do eventually kiss, it’s not before George has grabbed Mary, shaking her and shouting in her face. As McCabe wrote, ‘frankly, I’d be terrified if that was how the first kiss with my future husband went. They haven’t even hit the honeymoon stage and they’re already fighting to the point of storming out on each other and smashing stuff…I think the viewers are meant to see his indecision, anger and frustration about his circumstances as sexy. In 2019 it’s not. The reality is that George should be in therapy to learn how to better communicate his emotions.’
Honestly, when I started writing this, I wasn’t expecting to have to add *George Bailey* to the list of Hollywood Bad Boys who wouldn’t make as good a partner as we’d originally thought, but there we go.
We also mustn’t forget that It’s a Wonderful Life does show how great life can be…’for the obediently heteronormative!’ In the visions of life without George, Mary hasn’t married someone else. She has become every girl’s nightmare – an old maid!!! She’s a librarian, wearing an unfashionable hat and scurrying hysterically away from George as if she were frightened to be seen with a man. Prof LD in Sex Critical described her as ‘a picture of curdled, sexually unsatisfied femininity’ and goes on to say how ‘without having benefited from contact with the healing properties of a man’s penis and undergone the female duty of maternal labour in its literal and figurative senses, Mary has met the very worst end that can be imagined for a woman in her society: being alone and working for a living.’ Shocking.
And this feels particularly cruel because the Mary who does marry George is staggeringly capable! She doesn’t ‘sit around passively waiting for her dream to materialize. Instead, she was an active participant in the realization of her dreams…While George remained frustrated throughout most of his life, Mary made a plan and worked her plan.’ She saved the day, after all, rallying around the community to support her husband. Mary really should be the hero of this movie – she is the one who has made their wonderful life while her husband has been complaining.
But I do worry about what the Bailey’s future holds for them. After being grouchy and ungrateful for so long, was George’s joy at that one Christmas miracle enough to make him look at his whole life differently, forever? Or would he forget? ‘On Christmas morning in 1947, 1958, 1972, George will wake up, with less and less of that memory ringing in his brain, and might be tempted to despair again, to throw away his life or what he holds dear. George never did leave Bedford Falls. He never attained his most deeply held dreams. He got stuck, and that’s difficult to discard.’ Van Der Werff goes on to suggest that this is OK because It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t want this happy ending, this American Dream, to be seen as a solution but rather as a work in progress: ‘it’s something no one person can possibly attain, because its best possible version forever lies in the future. But we struggle forward, keep doing better, keep trying to build a more perfect world…It’s a wonderful life, sure, but you have to keep reminding yourself of that fact, because sometimes it’s anything but.’
And perhaps that does mean that It’s a Wonderful Life is a good Christmas movie. Or, more accurately a good holiday season movie. Because, at the end of this year of all horrible years, that’s a good and important message – and it’s one that I hope George remembers!
NEXT TIME… Lost in Translation