Like its protagonist, It’s a Wonderful Life has its own redemption story. Released in 1946, the film received tepid reviews from critics and was famously a box office flop, failing to earn enough revenue to break even with the budget, contributing to the bankruptcy of the production company Liberty Films and its eventual sale to Paramount. Twenty-eight years later, a clerical error allowed the movie to enter the public domain, at which point television stations started airing it solely because they could do so without paying royalties. Just as Uncle Billy’s clerical error was the catalyst that pushed George Bailey to find new appreciation for his life in Bedford Falls, that mistake at Paramount allowed a new American audience to find and embrace Bailey’s story, turning the forgotten film into the perennial classic it is today.
The emotional journey of the film comes in swells similar to ocean tides, each of the acts passing with a slow rise and fall. It exudes Christmas spirit, heavily laden with saccharine sweet goodness. The Christian foundation of that spirituality is evident from the opening scene, when the voices of George Bailey’s neighbors are heard praying for divine intervention on his behalf. The prayers are heard by senior angels, along with angel second class Clarence, who then serve as our guides through George’s life, preaching the gospels of George’s heroic self sacrifice as he routinely rescues his family and friends from demise. He has an innate resignation to do good, willing to dive into a frozen lake to pull out his brother, or get his bad ear boxed to save a drunken pharmacist. The story then shifts to Christmas present, and the emotional debt accumulated by George’s ubiquitous charity results in disillusionment with all aspects of his existence. In the final sequence, Clarence shows George a world without his influence. This is frightening enough to lead George to forsake his prior wish to be erased from history. When George is “born again” Bedford Falls returns to state of wholesomeness.
George is at odds with an equally archetypal Christmas movie villain. Mr. Potter is a quintessential Scrooge, intent on stealing both Christmas and the whole of Bedford Falls. Potter is an experienced capitalist, warmonger, slumlord, whose treachery has proven timeless. Part of what underpins the film’s inclusion on lists of great American films is that it lunges through some of our most potent national memories (the Great Depression, World War II, etc.) and Potter consistently represent the worst of our societal scourges. He despises Bailey and the Savings & Loan because they represent his deepest enemy, a wholesome roadblock to a monopoly on the town’s property and a steadfast David to this Goliath.
It’s intriguing that George is so determined to protect both his hometown and the Building & Loan from the clutches of Potter, because over the course of the film he seems desperate to rid himself of both. The audience immediately learns of George’s desire to explore the world far and leave this old town behind. An inversion of most holiday tropes, the hero of It’s a Wonderful Life longs to depart instead of return home. He is repeatedly prevented from seeing his international plans to fruition, and his resentment grows quietly as he continues to be the last line of defense against Potter. The feeling of confinement in the familiar and upholding familial obligations is not unique to George. The notion of returning or staying home carries with it inherent complexities, and that stress is something many of us experience over the holidays. However, when we enter the alternate reality of a universe without George Bailey, we witness a town devoid of his positivity descending into cynicism, depravity, and desperation. The destitution of the town he invested his life in saving transcends George’s fear of his future, and he longs for a return to the comfort of the streets that trapped him in his youth. George runs down the snow lined main drag of the small town, wishing everyone and everything a merry Christmas, a sign that no matter how dire the circumstances, we can all go home again.
As we learn throughout the course of the film, Bedford Falls needs George Bailey just as humanity needs symbols of good triumphing over evil. As the nights grow colder and longer in the depths of winter, both secular and religious cultures turn to symbolic representations of life enduring through adversity. The origins of Christmas trees can be traced back to pagan rituals that celebrated the capability of evergreens to flourish in winter, representing eternal life. Hanukkah candles are lit to illuminate darkness and pay homage to a miracle of that light persisting beyond expectations. The Hindu festival of lights, Diwali also uses candles to represent unified good over spiritual evil.
The collective dynamic of goodness is what we witness when George’s friends save him from demise. George shows us that self sacrifice can be a thankless grind, but the joy in perseverance will serve as a light through the troubling darkness of doubt and regret. The eagerness of the Bedford Falls residents to join together and rescue George is the sustenance we need to recognize that we have a responsibility to care for each other in order to keep that candle burning. Many of us return to It’s a Wonderful Life annually, like an old acquaintance. When Clarence gets his wings, and the voices of Bedford Falls join together for a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” our celebration of goodness crescendos, the nights of winter begin growing shorter again, and the light of day outweighs the darkness.