Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has become a staple of Christmastime for countless families, and with good reason. Some may scoff at its unabashed sentimentality, but for others (read: myself and my family), that sentimentality is what makes the film so endearing and enduring.
Despite the fact that watching this movie has become a holiday tradition, It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t exactly a Christmas movie, per se. True, the film’s whirlwind of events culminate at Christmastime, but the film is more of a study of a man than it is an examination of a holiday.
There is one scene maybe halfway through the film that I feel exquisitely captures the essence of everyman George Bailey (James Stewart) and the struggle he goes through. It’s after he and his new wife Mary (Donna Reed) have helped the struggling Martini family move into a new home. George’s old friend Sam Wainwright appears with a beautiful blonde hanging off his arm. Impulsive and extravagantly wealthy, Sam and his girl invite George and Mary on a spontaneous road trip, which George has to decline (“Afraid I couldn’t get away, Sam,” he mutters regretfully).
The friends then part ways, Sam driving off down the dusty road while George and Mary, arm in arm, watch the car disappear. When they can no longer hear the putter of the car’s engine, they break apart and silently walk back to their house. Mary walks ahead while George pauses at his own car, beat-up and broken down compared to Sam’s slick ride. He sees that the driver door is hanging open and, in a gesture of mute, powerless frustration, he kicks the car door shut.
In this short, silent series of events, Capra captures and channels George’s hunger to see the world and his frustration with the mundanities of everyday life that get in the way of his dreams. The film is filled with telltale moments like these that make for a completely enthralling experience.
What I enjoy most about It’s a Wonderful Life is the cast that brings these rich moments to life. The cast is vast, varied, and complex. And although some characters only get a few minutes of screen time, I still feel as if I know them intimately. The characters don’t so much feel like characters, but rather, like real people- and they remind us of people we’ve all met somewhere along the course of our lives. That’s the thing about this movie- I can’t think of any other film that creates such a feeling of familiarity and kinship between the audience and the characters of the film. For this reason, every time I watch this movie, I feel like I’m returning to old friends.
So yes, every year we all gather to indulge in the homey goodness that is It’s a Wonderful Life. While the film is a nostalgic snapshot of a bygone era of American life, its message still rings true today. It reminds us of the importance of family and friends and of the impact we all have on each other. It may be over-sentimental to some, but it’s packed full of powerful performances and Capra’s got sentimentality down to a science.