Film moments #27: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)


There are lots of wonderful things in Frank Capra’s classic *It’s A Wonderful Life, rightly regarded as one of the classic Christmas films because the final action unfolds on Christmas Eve. I’ve probably watched it a dozen times, sometimes in the cinema, and the ending, where younger brother Harry toasts George Bailey, played by James Steart as “the richest man in Bedford Falls,” always, still, brings a tear to my eye. The scene in the toll house, as it dawns on George and the watching toll keeper that Clarence (the angel) really is not of this world is always funny. The energy of the dance sequence at the school prom. The list could go on and on. 

I’m also told, by younger colleagues who have seen the film recently for the first time, that it holds up well.

Part of the secret of the film is Lionel Barrymore’s Potter, one of the great cinema villains, who is malevolent throughout. He owns much of Bedford Falls, including most of its slums. 

The moment I’ve picked out here is the first great set-to between Barrymore and Stewart. Potter is trying to get the board of the Building and Loan (effectively a building society) to close it down after the sudden death of George’s father. It locates the film in that post-war moment when, having won the war, people asked what world we would now choose to build. 

For It’s A Wonderful Life is about those people: the policeman, the cab driver, the drugstore owner, the (immigrant) bar landlord, the kind of people who hold a small town together. And George Bailey, who fulfils his dream of building things without ever realising that that’s what he’s done in the Buildings and Loan’s development, Bailey Park. 

(In passing, Pottersville—the counter-factual version of Bedford Falls inthe film— with its bars and stripclubs and casinos, and heavy police presence, looks a bit like New Labour’s failed plan to build super-casinos to regenerate declining towns and cities.)

Here’s that scene in the boardroom of the Building and Loan. One thing worth watching: the way the camera rests on James Stewart at the back of the room, collecting his coat to leave as Barrymore hits his stride. 

The speech, of course, costs him his dream of travelling and seeing the world; the board vote Potter down and agree to keep the Buildings and Loan in business but on condition that George stays in town to run it rather than going to college. And maybe it’s not coincidence that his wife Mary spends much of the film rpairing and renovating the same Granville house whose windows they break (and make a wish on) early in the film.

It’s A Wonderful Life is usually seen as a redemption film, about George Bailey, who has lost his hope and that’s how the script sets it up. But it’s also about the ties that bind us together. Potter and his money try to break those ties apart. In an age where money is doing the same to our societies, it makes the film contemporary again. 

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