It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (part 1 of 2)

I have to admit, I kind of can’t stand It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’ll explain why in more detail shortly, but first, I’d like to discuss a man who somehow became one of the most famous directors in American history. In fact, he even got his own adjective: “Capra-esque” (the “esque” makes it sound fancy!). It’s been used in recent times to describe movies like The Majestic, Serendipity, Field of Dreams, Forrest Gump, and of course, Heathers.

I’m talking about old-fashioned, feel-good movies that recall a kinder and gentler time. Or, if you’re a cynical bastard like me, shallow, manipulative drivel that basically tells you to keep your mouth shut, never question anything, and eventually everything will go your way.

As dramatically empty as these kinds of movies are, there was a time when things were so bad for the country that people actually liked them. And no one dry humped the formula more relentlessly than Frank Capra.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (part 1 of 2)

I know as a film buff, I’m supposed to regard Capra’s movies as sacred, like It Happened One Night or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But the thing is, unlike his contemporaries like, say, Howard Hawks, Capra’s movies haven’t aged well at all. Pretty much everything Capra did was the cinematic equivalent of a Mitch Albom book: peppy, upbeat glurge designed to distract you from the fact that day to day life mostly just sucks.

This was never more obvious than in 1946’s Christmas themed It’s A Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart as a guy constantly fucked over by fate, and Donna Reed as his oppressively perfect wife.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (part 1 of 2)

Unfortunately, the movie came out just as our nation was entering the longest period of peace and prosperity in its history. So no one was all that interested in wallowing in misery at the time. As a result, the movie flopped worse than Dee Dee Ramone’s rap album.

So, why is It’s a Wonderful Life considered a classic? Because the programmer at your local UHF station was a cheap son of a bitch, that’s why!

You see, the movie was kind of forgotten, and the rights fell into limbo for a while, and by the ‘70s it started showing up on TV because they needed cheap Christmas programming. And there isn’t enough cocaine in the world to justify running Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.

Eventually, it became one of the most beloved, copied, emulated, and spoofed movies of all time, despite not really being that good. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

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We open with the good people of Bedford Falls, New York praying for a guy named George Bailey, who’s lost his way and become depressed. This is supposed to be heartwarming, but I’ve seen the rest of the film, and I know these people are only praying because they know if anything happens to George, they’ll starve to death.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (part 1 of 2)

We move to… outer space… where a group of sentient galaxies [??] have a conversation.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (part 1 of 2)

It turns out these are actually angels (but of course!) and the small point of light between them is an angel-in-training named “Clarence”. The real angels tell Clarence (and us) about George Bailey’s country song of a life.

Clarence: Is he sick?
Angel: No, worse, he’s discouraged.

I think you’ll find his loss of hope is just plain common sense.

And so, we get flashbacks. To the childhood of a character we haven’t even met yet. In fact, the entire first half of the film is a series of flashbacks, which frankly is a sign of a weak script, as we’ll learn later on.

First, we see young George and his friends playing in the snow. It’s that fun pastime known as “sliding down a hill on a shovel”. Or as they call it these days, “a concussion waiting to happen”.

Caption contributed by Albert

“I’m Johnny Knoxville, and this is Extreme Tobogganing.”

Sure enough, George’s younger brother Harry nearly drowns in a frozen lake. George rescues him, but ends up losing his hearing in one ear.

This is the best thing that happens to George in the entire film.

Caption contributed by Albert

See what happens when you ignore Christopher Walken?

Next, we find young George working at a drugstore, where he meets Mary, his future wife, and Violet, the future town skank. Together, they’re the Paris and Nicole of Depression-era upstate New York.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (part 1 of 2)

Little Mary decides to take advantage of George’s hearing loss, and she whispers into his bad ear.

Mary: George Bailey, I’ll love you ‘til the day I die.

Okay. That’s about the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen a child do in a movie. And I’ve seen Omen IV. And Children of the Corn 7. And Baby Geniuses.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (part 1 of 2)

Meanwhile, George’s boss Old Man Gower is so despondent over his son’s death that he mixes up medicine with poison. Though you’ve got to be pretty damn addled not to notice the big label that says POISON.

Caption contributed by Albert

The new fragrance by Bret Michaels.

George spots the mix-up, and is rewarded by getting smacked around real good by Old Man Gower and bleeding profusely from his bad ear.

Caption contributed by Albert

Old Man Gower’s pimp hand is strong.

Somewhere during this litany of woe, we get a brief introduction to our supposed villain, the very Dick Cheney-like Mr. Potter. I say “supposed” because his only real crime is that, unlike the rest of the town, he doesn’t sponge off of George for his very survival.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (part 1 of 2)

Actually, I’m sort of sympathetic to Potter, because he’s the only character in the film that even comes close to being believably written. Also, the real villain of the film is much more insidious. As we shall see later.

Next, we fast forward in time to the grown-up George, now played by Jimmy Stewart. We find out he’s put off going away to college until his younger brother is old enough to take over the family business, the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. Basically, George has become that one guy who’s way too old to be hanging out with high school kids, only with a lot less smoking pot and driving muscle cars.

Caption contributed by Albert

“That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older… they stay the same age!”

George attends a high school dance, which is how he meets up again with Mary, now played by the smoking hot Donna Reed, who’s supposed to be 18 but looks 30. They dance, but George is such a prick that one of the kids plays a prank where he opens up the gymnasium floor to reveal the swimming pool below. Which eventually leads to this:

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (part 1 of 2)

Long story short: They drown, the end.

No, I wish. Actually, this leads to that corny love scene that inspired the creepy vanity card at the end of My So-Called Life.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) (part 1 of 2)

We learn Mary basically lives across the street from the Munsters’ old place. She wants to live in it someday, and because she’s a certified nutcase, we just know they’ll end up there.

Caption contributed by Albert

Come to beautiful Detroit! A city on the move!

Seriously, what well-adjusted person sees a future crack den and says to themselves, “That’s where me and the guy I’m stalking are going to live one day”? It’s like something out of Silence of the Lambs.

George then one-ups Mary on the crazy, delivering a long rambling speech about what he plans to do with his life.

George: Mary, I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and next year, and the year after that. I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I’m gonna see the world!! Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum, then I’m coming back here and go to college, and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things! I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high! I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…

Yeesh, is this guy George Bailey or Howard Roark? Actually, come to think of it, Howard Roark was a lot less of a blowhard.

Multi-Part Article: It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

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  • photography_raptor

    Holy crap, literally everything in this review is wrong.

    No, wait, that’s not fair. Most of the piece was just a snarky summary of the plot, and that was technically accurate.

    • Michael A. Novelli

      I was wondering if the fans were gonna crawl out of the woodwork again this year. Merry Xmas!

  • Pseudo_nym

    Mary gives away the money, because if they have to lock the doors to prevent a run on the building and loan then they will be ruined.

    The bank examiner is at George’s house and gives money right before the Da rips up the warrant and both sing.

    Potter gets exactly what he deserves: a completely empty life that he doesn’t enjoy whatsoever.

    You really do get a fantastic amount wrong in your ‘review’.

    • Michael A. Novelli

      1. Not a review, recap, there’s a difference.

      2. I hate to tell you this, but ripping up a government document doesn’t invalidate it (any more than tearing up a contract gets you off the hook) so there would, in real life, still technically be a warrant out for George’s arrest, since in the eyes of the law, it doesn’t matter if George made up for the missing cash, it still went missing in the first place.

      3. Potter gets an empty life, and several thousand dollars of stolen money with no reprocussions. Somehow I think he’ll survive…

      • Pseudo_nym

        Yeah, but this isn’t the real world. The bank examiner has agreed to look the other way and the DA isn’t interested in pressing charges. He’s free and clear and has a ‘loan’ from Sam Wainwright of $25,000. He’s way better off than before the missing cash.

        Hate the movie for whatever reasons you want, but don’t try to extrapolate ‘realistic’ consequences the movie more than adequately accounts for.

  • Muthsarah

    Do you hate all Capra movies?  What about Lost Horizon?  Sure, it rewards most of its characters for stuff they haven’t actively done, and it’s arguably a little racist by today’s standards.  It’s an olden times fantasy, set in an arbitrarily pretty world, that suggests that one day, any white person could find their plantation in the sky.  What, you’d say no to that?

    I had apparently forgotten the whole first hour of this movie.  The idea of Jimmy Stewart getting spiritually disemboweled over 60 minutes is actually quite intriguing, though I’m not certain what we’re supposed to take away from the ending.  “So it could maybe be worse?”  It isn’t exactly heartwarming, even if it’s absolutely true.  George has a job, a nice suit, a postcard-perfect family, a child who doesn’t have polio, a wife who cooks like Betty Crocker, a town where everyone knows his name, and enough leverage over his brother to guilt-trip him for another 50 years.  Pretty good for a time when most people in the world were starving or dead.

  • chromesthesia

    I do totally agree with this review. I thought I was the only one. Stupid people not appreciating poor George until the last few minutes of the movie!

  • James Elfers

    My problem with the movie is Mary’s fate in the alternate universe. Because she never met George she ends up not only as a spinster but homely to boot. Wasn’t she dating Sam Wainright in the normal timeline? I could have bought Mary being unhappily married to Sam or  real scandalously for 1946 divorced from him! But no she gets a fate worse than death, she becomes a librarian! (True confession time. I work in the library biz.)
       Other than that George is the type of guy who really doesn’t exist anymore. He is a “Dutiful son” he takes on his father’s job not because he has a burning desire to fill his dad’s shoes but because it is expected of him. There were a few guys like George when I was in college in the 80’s. A classmate of mine had to drop out of school and take over the family business when his old man dropped dead — Just like George’s father. It was work he hated but it was expected of him. I don’t know if our culture is worse or better than it was in 1946 when It’s a wonderful life was made but there are certainly far fewer people at EVERY strata of America who are living up to the expectations of others. Had George had today’s aesthetic it would have been a far different film! 

  • Ricardo Cantoral

    I think one hilarious part worth noting is that George’s father all but says ” I AM GOING TO DIE” the very night he keels over in hopes of George staying in Bedford Falls. As for the overall nature of the film, what can I say ? It’s a product of it’s time that I admit even I get teary eyed when George begs to live again and save his wife from a horrible fate of not making babies and staying at home. If you want an even more ridiculous film that has a warped sense of morals, look no further than Tomorrow is Forever in which Orson Welles plays a man who’s so ashamed of being a cripple that he let’s his wife believe he’s dead for 20 years; The whole thing concludes with him dying and actually getting the dumb broad to believe that his pride was more important than her sanity.