We’ve reached the end of our 12 Days of Christmas Films, and I cannot think of a better film to round off our festive series. It’s a special kind of film that makes you well up just reading the plot summary on Wikipedia. Or so someone told me. No, you’re trying to stop tears saturating your keyboard!
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (a worthy prefix in the style of ‘William Shakespeare’s Hamlet’, or ‘Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’) is simply the greatest Christmas film of all time. It might not feature Santa Claus, someone falling off of a roof putting up decorations, or even take place predominantly over the Christmas period – but its simple message is one that everyone needs reminding of at this particular time of the year.
James Stewart (in his favourite role) plays George Bailey; simply the most selfless and implausibly kind person who ever lived. Seriously, he makes Mother Theresa look like Tony Soprano. At the start of the film an angel (Second Class) by the name of Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) is tasked with saving George as he contemplates taking his own life. Clarence’s line-managers (it helps me to put religion into context by imagining the afterlife as some higher form of bureaucracy) review the life of George Bailey, and the next 50 minutes or so are some of the most depressing and asphyxiating cinema ever committed to film.
George saves his brother’s life and, in doing so, loses his hearing in one ear; George stays at home to run the family business; George gives his college money to his brother; George sacrifices his honeymoon fund to save the townspeople. It’s one crushing disappointment after another, and George remains stoic above it all. He’s not even one of those people who uses their goodwill as a stick to beat the rest of us feckless bastards with.
It all finally gets too much for George though, leading to him meeting Clarence on the bridge where he is about to kill himself. Clarence proceeds to show George how Bedford Falls would look if he had never existed. It’s here where we learn (or are at least reminded of a) vital truth about our humanity. In recent years the trend has been to embrace science, with all its logic and reason rightfully highlighting how insignificant we are in the broad history of the universe. Compared to the alternative, that is a very good thing. But this film’s central message that “no man is a failure who has friends” is one even rabid atheists can use to embrace their humanity at Christmas.
This is a short piece for a few reasons. Firstly, I’m writing this on Christmas Eve before I go to the cinema with my family to watch It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen. And I’m not even dressed yet. More importantly though, every extra word I write about this masterpiece is wasted computer ink compared to actually watching it for yourselves. So turn off your computer/phone/second-screen device, track down a copy of It’s a Wonderful Life, and hold your friends and family close.
Read the 12 Days of Christmas Films so far, or catch White Christmas most days on Sky Movies Classics.