Everyone has their own Christmas traditions. Some people like to go carolling, others might prefer a cup of cocoa in front of the fire, and some, like me, will watch a Christmas film.
We all have our favourites, of course, and I’m not going to pretend that this film has always been my Christmas Eve film tradition, but it has been in recent years because, quite frankly, there’s no better Christmas Eve film. In fact, there may not be a better Christmas film, full stop.
Even though I hadn’t seen this film until a few Christmases ago, I knew it by reputation. It’s almost like the Citizen Kane of Christmas movies; it’s universally beloved and its reputation continues to be strong, no matter how old it is.
I remember watching this for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect and was, as always, wary of its reputation, and worried that it may not live up to the lofty ambitions that it had built over the decades. I have never been so pleased to be wrong in all my life.
It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of George Bailey. We are taken on a journey throughout his life, how he saved his little brother from drowning but partially lost his hearing as a result, we see him grow up, fall in love, take over his fathers business, and then we see his downfall. In his darkest moment, George is left to ask the question: would life had been better if I were never born?
Very rarely, I come across a film that re-affirms my love for the art form. I always know that I love doing this, even if I never see a penny of profit from the venture, I love films, and I love writing about them; but sometimes a film will come along that will make every single dud I ever sit through worth it. Something so powerful that it makes me forget about all the times I sit at my computer, unsure of what I have to say, or even if I have anything to say, and this film is one of them.
There are a few films I cherish, that I could talk about for hours on end and still find new material to talk about. They all give me the same feeling, a warm buzzing in my heart, some of my deepest emotional connections have been with films, especially growing up as somewhat of an outsider, and remaining a loner, my solace became movies, they speak to me in ways that people don’t, they comfort me.
It’s A Wonderful Life instantly became one of my favourite films when the bell sounded at the end of the film, in fact, truth be told, it probably was before that. Sometimes I just know when a film is going to go straight into my favourites list. There are some that I grow fonder and fonder of as time goes by, and others I take straight to my heart.
I don’t think there’s anything I can say as a critic that hasn’t already been said for decades, I can just tell you how it makes me feel, and it gives me a whole cocktail of emotions from opening credits to end. I genuinely get teary just thinking about this film, so imagine what I’m like when I watch it!
Joking aside, there are few experiences like it. It’s surprisingly dark, for starters, especially for its time, but ultimately it is one of the most life-affirming films you can ever watch.
Charting the entire course of George Bailey’s life, it shows us all the ways we as people affect others lives, all the lives we touch and indelibly alter, and even some that we unknowingly save. George Bailey is the everyman, we grow to love him because we recognise him. He makes mistakes, but he’s human, he always goes above and beyond to do what’s right, and when we see his bad luck start to mount, we empathise.
Some modern filmmakers could do to study this film repeatedly, as it’s a near-perfect character study. As an example of how to build a character, make him sympathetic, and make his frustrations justified without making them seem selfish or entitled, it is without par. Of course, there are times when George may seem selfish, but he’s driven by entirely understandable problems. We all know what it’s like to let the frustrations of life mount on you, it’s a universal story.
Of course, all that work in writing and conceptualising this character would have been for nought had they not cast the right man to play him, and Frank Capra manages to strike gold at the perfect time with the casting of James Stewart.
Stewart is a Hollywood golden-age legend, of course, but at the time of filming this, he was considering retirement. Scarred by his experiences in the Second World War and unsure of his abilities, he was given a new lease of life by Capra; and he grabbed it with both hands. He sparkles as George Bailey, arguably his most iconic character, and what’s most amazing is the timelessness of his performance. He’s still as sympathetic in 2020 as he’s ever been and that’s testament to Stewart’s masterclass performance.
To me, the biggest testament to the legacy of this film, and quality, is in the fact that no-one has ever re-made it. In this money-obsessed industry, anything that has the slightest name-recognition is in line for a remake, and they don’t come more venerable than this, but it says more to me that no director dare touch it for fear of tainting the original than any critic could ever say. You can’t improve perfection, and it seems that the studios agree, as it is consistently re-released on new formats, this year receiving a 4K version, and shows no sign of slowing down. A tell-tale sign of an impending re-release is the withdrawal of the old version from the market, so it’s continued visibility tells me that there are no plans for a new version any time soon.
In the world of cinema, there is a pantheon of untouchable classics, that only achieve that feat with age. Like many of its contemporaries in this bracket, It’s a Wonderful Life received a mixed reception on its initial release, only time and re-appraisals can make a classic like this into what it is. Quality is ageless, and what was unappreciated once can become an undisputed classic given the right amount of time in the public eye.
To me, there is no greater example of what a Christmas movie can be. It manages an emotional connection with its audience without being too sentimental, its charm is effortless, its appeal timeless.
Not only is this, to me, the greatest Christmas film of all time, but it is also one of the greatest films of all time.