The Mournful Heart of It’s a Wonderful Life

The holiday classic is now 75 years old, and a timely exploration of what happens when all that you’ve relied on fades away.

Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, depressed at a bar, in 'It's a Wonderful Life'
RKO Pictures / Getty

It’s a Wonderful Life is an odd candidate for the “heartwarming Christmas classic” category. The film’s plot pivots around its main character’s consideration of suicide. And the story of George Bailey, a family man beset by troubles both financial and existential, does not get notably Christmas-y until its final seconds. “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it,” the director, Frank Capra, would later say. “I just liked the idea.”

The film’s current popularity is in some ways accidental: It met mixed reviews when it premiered in 1946 and flopped at the box office. It languished for decades until 1974, when what was likely a clerical oversight changed its fate: The film’s 28-year copyright period had come to an end because the studio that owned it failed to refile for a second term. It’s a Wonderful Life entered the public domain, and TV networks, availing themselves of its new royalty-free status, began airing it. Repeatedly. And eventually, as sometimes happens, the repetition led to love.

It’s a Wonderful Life is 75 years old this year, now beloved both because and in spite of the fact that it is about a man convinced by an affable angel that the world is better because he is in it. I’d remembered the film as a giddy blend of styles and characters: comedy, tragedy, magical realism, a celestial being whose angel-rank is Second Class and whose name is Clarence Odbody. I’d understood it through George’s descent from a would-be adventurer to a reluctant businessman, as a meditation on dashed dreams—an argument that growing up is, in part, adjusting the hopes you’ve had for the ones you might come to hold.

Watching the movie this year, though, I found that it landed very differently. It read even more darkly. What struck me this time was the dreams’ manner of death: They were extinguished not in an instant, but by repeated dousings. George, played by James Stewart, is a hero whose journey is quite often stuck in the “being tested” phase of things. He tries, so hard, to have adventures away from his small hometown; circumstance, again and again, keeps him homebound. The recurrent nature of his trials seems especially acute right now. The pandemic that looked, earlier this year, like it might be under control has resurged with a new variant. The chance leaders had to do the bare minimum to forestall the planet’s furies has been squandered once again. American democracy, new and ever-fragile, is under threat once more. George Bailey was never just George Bailey; he has always doubled as a collection of decidedly American metaphors. This year, though, he looks more like an omen.

The first thing audiences learn about George is that he is possessed of an intrinsic heroism. As a child, he saved his younger brother, Harry, from drowning after the ice of a pond they were skating on broke. George, without thinking, dived in; Harry lived; George came away with an infection that rendered him deaf in one ear. And then the cadence that defines much of the film—circumstances requiring his sacrifices—sets in.  George dreams of traveling the world; he wants the scope of his universe to grow larger than life in Bedford Falls can afford. His initial plans for adventure get curtailed, at the very last minute, because his father has a stroke. He stays. Not long after, George is about to leave for college; minutes before he’s set to depart—the cab is idling outside—he learns that the family business, Bailey Bros. Building & Loan, will survive only if he takes over as its head. George has no interest in finance, but he does what must be done. He stays once again. Later, just as he’s leaving for his honeymoon—he and his wife, Mary, are in the cab this time—he sees a crowd in front of the Bailey Bros. office. There’s a run on the banks. Everyone wants their money back.

George Bailey talks to a crowd of panicked townspeople at his family's building and loan company in "It's a Wonderful Life.'
The film is a relic of an America that was earnestly animated by notions of sacrifice and the common good. (RKO Pictures / Getty)

Again: George does what he has to do. He stays in Bedford Falls. He sacrifices once more. The circumstances are coincidental; for George, though, they amount for much of the film to a senseless resilience. He is tested and tested and tested, with a notable absence of relief or reward. The hero with a thousand faces is left, instead, with a thousand loan accounts.

The end of It’s a Wonderful Life reliably makes me cry: the community coming together to save George, the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” in the Baileys’ living room, the moppet Zuzu Bailey reminding her father that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”—it’s mushy and saccharine and I love it. This time around, though, a much earlier scene brought the tears. George, having taken over the building and loan, is meeting Harry, who had gone to college in his older brother’s stead, at the train station. After four years away, Harry was going to move back to Bedford Falls and take over the business: the brothers swapping timelines, but both fulfilling their dreams.

And then, at the station, Harry disembarks with his new wife, Ruth. George learns that Harry will be taking another job, with her father’s company, outside of Bedford Falls. The camera zooms in on George’s face as he takes in the news, his expression ranging from horror to panic to resignation to despair. For a moment, the quintessential Capra film summons Hitchcock. And then George readjusts his expression into a smile. He understands what the world expects of him: compliance, sacrifice, resilience. Again, he does his duty. It was at that point, specifically, that I found myself tearing up.

Today, one might interpret George’s forced smile as evidence of emotional labor. One might see, in his transactions with the world, something vaguely feminine. It’s a Wonderful Life, to be clear, is doing precisely nothing radical in terms of its exploration of gender identity. But it is examining, quite overtly, power as a social force—who wields it, who wilts under it. Other men in this world, among them Harry and the callous capitalist Henry Potter, want things, and their desires guide their actions. They act with stereotypical masculinity. They go out and realize their own versions of George’s great dream: They lasso the moon. George, meanwhile, typically has life happen to him. The world acts; he reacts. But he has no other option, the film suggests: His noble passivity nurtures the common good.

That’s part of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life so complicated, not just as a holiday classic, but as a story in its own right. The film is charged with a sense of ambient despair. It channels George’s awareness of his own powerlessness. It turns vulnerability into an environmental condition. Early on, when the Bailey boys are sledding with their friends—a basic and wholesome winter pastime—what happens? The pond’s ice breaks. George and Mary are dancing at the graduation party, joyfully, breathlessly … until some guys pulling a prank remove the floor beneath their feet.

The movie is full of scenes like that: stability fracturing, the ground gaping. Everyone—save for, perhaps, Mr. Potter—is vulnerable. At one moment, Mary is wearing her borrowed bathrobe, merrily flirting with George; the next, the robe having slipped off, she’s naked and hiding in a bush. At one moment, George’s mother is giggling with his father; hours later, Mr. Bailey has his stroke. It’s a Wonderful Life, its title notwithstanding, might train you to treat merriment itself as suspect: Joy, in this world, is so often interrupted by tragedy.

Violence sometimes breaks into the film’s story, too—as evidence of wayward grief. Early on, Mr. Gower, the town pharmacist, hits a young George so badly that his ear bleeds: The older man has just received news that his son has died of influenza. Later, an adult George visits Mary after she’s returned from college. He is resistant: He knows both that he loves her and that loving her will mean an end to his dreams of world travel. He winds up on a phone call with Mary and another of her suitors, their mutual friend, and the scene that results—their faces close, their fates hanging in the balance—is a piece of cinematic lore. George finally gives in, wordlessly admitting that he cares about Mary. But before he does, he shakes her, so hard that it makes her cry. “I want to do what I want to do!” he says, angrily, pointlessly, before he kisses her.

George reconciles himself. He gives up one dream for the one he had never thought to want: a wife who reliably sees the bright side of their misfortunes, children who are devoted to him, a community full of people whose lives have been made better because of him. Does that amount to a happy ending? Maybe. Seventy-five years later, It’s a Wonderful Life can be understood as an exploration of some of America’s fondest myths: that individual sacrifices will be rewarded; that capitalism can be controlled by people of goodwill; that communities will come together by the time the credits roll. It can also be seen as putting forth the great-man theory of history, realized by an everyman: George’s existence, Clarence makes clear, changed everything—for his family, and for his town, and for his country. George’s sacrifices prevented Potter from taking over Bedford Falls. The continued existence of the building and loan allowed community residents to buy their own homes, rather than living as Potter’s tenants. Harry fights in World War II, saving lives in the process—there to help others because George, all those years ago, had been there to help him.

The film is a relic of an America, post-Depression and postwar, that was earnestly animated by notions of sacrifice and the common good. Its continued urgency, though, comes from its sense of how vulnerable everyone—even the heroic George Bailey—can be to twists of history. One moment, George is at a party, his adventures ahead of him and his dreams waiting to be claimed … and the next, the ground has retracted beneath him. The only thing he can do, the film suggests—the only thing that will keep him safe from despair—is find a way, despite it all, to keep dancing.