Do I love It’s a Wonderful Life so much because “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is my favorite Christmas carol, or do I love “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” so much because It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies? We may never know for sure. The important thing is that the two go together so well. The ending of this film pushes all my buttons, it really does. Most of the critical writing I’ve read on It’s a Wonderful Life in the last few years emphasizes the darkness in the story. There are valuable points to be made along those lines, to be sure — this is no bland, pleasant “family movie” to be put on while you fall into a tryptophan-induced nap. Any film in which the protagonist nearly commits suicide on Christmas Eve could never be accused of sugarcoating. Still, I’m going to take a slightly different tack. It’s a Wonderful Life is widely considered a great movie, and many people watch it annually as part of their Christmas traditions. This is no coincidence. The movie really is about Christmas, and in more ways than one.
Obviously, the story’s framing device causes the film to begin and end on Christmas Eve. But both Edward Scissorhands and Toy Story end during the holiday season too, and of course Die Hard also takes place on the night before Christmas. Maybe all of these movies are holiday traditions for someone. There’s a lot more going on with this film, though. It implicitly and explicitly draws comparisons to other Christmas stories, both “secular” and “sacred.” Thus the entire film embodies much of what we commonly consider “the Christmas spirit.”
The trials of George Bailey are meant to teach him the value of family and friends above personal achievement. This is the bucolic vision of Christmas, a time to come home (or even stay home) and just be with the people you love. Ebenezer Scrooge would scoff at those priorities, and It’s a Wonderful Life represents an inverted variation on A Christmas Carol — as if it were Bob Cratchit who received the visions of the spirits while Scrooge himself was left alone. The supernatural lesson in this case is not that the protagonist must change or die, but that he must stay the course and live. This makes for a much less didactic story, in my opinion.
But what about Henry F. Potter? It’s often acknowledged that the villain remains unpunished at the end of this film, both for general loathsomeness and the theft of $8,000 in particular. As powerful as George’s redemption is at the end, he will still have to deal with Potter for the foreseeable future. Then again, there are worse punishments than jail. For example, Potter has no spirits watching over him as he blithely continues to forge chains of the Jacob Marley variety. I’m also reminded of an earlier scene, in which George observes the arrival in town of the affluent Sam Wainwright. His wife Mary’s response: “Oh, who cares?” The overflowing joy of this film’s ending more than compensates for any lingering injustice.
Even more compelling than the film’s status as an American update of A Christmas Carol, however, is how it scans as a Gospel allegory. George Bailey lives a life of self-sacrificing service but is ultimately punished for someone else’s mistake. He has his own kind of Calvary, spends a period of time “dead” in a sense, and is finally resurrected, ascending (up a staircase) to familial heaven. The angel visitation, the prayers, the religious song mentioned above — these are not merely quaint artifacts of a once-devout America. They make George’s Christlikeness explicit. I can’t call It’s a Wonderful Life a “Christian movie.” The allegory can be seen simply as an homage to “the greatest story ever told.” But the film has deep resonance for a Christian viewer that a nonbeliever wouldn’t experience.
Then again, George has even more in common with Job than he does with Jesus. (Christian scholars have called Job a “type” of Christ. In other words, the life and death of Jesus retroactively added meaning to Job’s story that the poor guy could never fully understand while he was alive.) George’s ambition to “see the world” is not sinful (although it’s clearly implied that he would be abandoning people who need him if he ever left Bedford Falls), but he’s continually punished, not only for that, but for his acts of service as well. His brother Harry falls in the icy river but escapes intact, later becoming a successful athlete and war hero. George is the one with the permanent physical damage that keeps him from being drafted into World War II. Thus, not even the largest mobilization of military forces in American history can get George out of his hometown. Fast-forward to the supernatural intervention during which George sees what would have happened if he didn’t exist. This passage is meant as a sort of pep talk, coaxing George away from his suicidal thoughts. But the alternate universe that’s presented is so dark and disturbing that it makes me think of the end of the Book of Job where, after all of Job’s intense suffering, God comes down from heaven to yell at him for a bit. Or at least it’s easy to see it that way. In each story, God judges the main character to be in need of some perspective.
It’s a Wonderful Life is near the top of my list of favorite movies. There are many other facets of the film that could cover an essay of this size. I’ve written elsewhere about the rich supporting casts in Frank Capra’s movies — Gloria Grahame, Thomas Mitchell and Ward Bond (just to name a few) could add something special to any film. I’ve also written a little about George Bailey and how much I identify with him. I know it’s cliché, but there might actually be something in this movie for everyone. Conservatives can see it as a warm tribute to “family values,” and liberals can see it as an indictment of the dark side of American capitalism. The emotional range of this film is simply extraordinary — a comedy-drama in all the senses of both terms.
But let’s return to that song, and how its use exemplifies this film’s status as a Christmas movie. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” succinctly explains who Christ is and what he was born to do. That much is explicit. But the film does something very interesting with the music. As George faces the greatest financial crisis of his life, his daughter Janie practices the tune on the piano over and over until finally he can no longer contain a lifetime of frustrations and lashes out (a moment that still shakes me in a personal way even though I watch this movie every year). This is cinema, folks: the combination of images and sound perfectly capture the forced cheer that can make Christmas the worst time of year for people who are hurting. Then the ending comes, and George discovers he can now hear the song not as an empty gesture but as an expression of true joy. That’s what we’d like Christmas to be, and every once in a while we get it right.