Although the ending of the Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life
takes place during Christmas, the film was not intended to be holiday entertainment when it was first released in 1946. It has since become a classic associated with Christmas, and is cited by many as a favorite movie to watch during the holidays.
The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, Donna Reed as Mary Hatch-Bailey and Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter. It is a film about the hopes and dreams of George Bailey, and how they never quite materialize. This is partly due to the machinations of Mr. Potter (an early version of the greedy corporate executive). George has dreams of traveling the world, of building things, of having a million dollars. As his life unfolds, reality doesn’t even come close to his aspirations.
George’s father and his Uncle Billy run a small building and loan company, an institution Mr. Potter yearns to make his own. George again and again stays in Bedford Falls to work at the building and loan, setting aside his dreams year after year. During this time, he marries the girl who has always loved him (played by Donna Reed). Four children soon follow, and George struggles to support his family.
On Christmas Eve day, Uncle Billy misplaces an $8,000 deposit to the bank (the money is found by Mr. Potter who uses the opportunity to set into motion the final demise of the building and loan and thus George Bailey). George is at his lowest point. Mr. Potter points out he is worth more dead than alive, and George considers suicide. This is why I don’t think of It's a Wonderful Life as a Christmas movie. The film deals with George’s depression and desperation, and is really a drama with elements of comedy and romance. The careful observer notices the clues that George hasn’t been happy with his life for some time, and the incident of the lost money sends him right over the edge.
Before George can throw himself off a bridge into the turbulent, cold waters of the river, an angel intervenes. An angel named Clarence, who is from another era. Clarence realizes that the way to help George is to show him what the world would be like had he never been born.
As George and Clarence walk through a world where George doesn’t exist, he grows frantic as all the familiar places, friends and family he has taken for granted are nowhere to be found. He finally realizes he really does love his wife, his children, and his life. Once George realizes he wants to live, Clarence brings George’s world back. The ending results in all his friends coming together to help him out.
Largely because of James Stewart’s wonderful performance, the audience can empathize with George’s feelings about his life, and I think that is why this film is beloved by so many. The screenplay is also excellent. Mr. Stewart gets to deliver some great romantic lines, and his passion to his character remains from beginning to end. I recommend this film as one of the classics of all time.