Remember: Before "It's a Wonderful Life"'s happy ending, George Bailey (James Stewart) wants to jump off a bridge.
Like “The Wizard of Oz,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” wasn’t a success at first and gained its sky high reputation on TV decades after its release. Also like that film, it’s a lot darker than its wholesome, feel-good family entertainment status suggests. “Oz” may end with Judy Garland's Dorothy happily exclaiming, “There’s no place like home.” But remember: Home is a Depression-era farm suffering hardships, and evil Miss Gulch still intends to murder pesky Toto. Absolutely nothing set up in the first half hour has been resolved, save the curing of Dorothy’s wanderlust — which may not be a good thing.
And then there’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Every Christmas, Frank Capra’s holiday classic scores remarkable Nielsen ratings for a nearly 70 year old black-and-white movie. The joyous final scene — where James Stewart’s George Bailey, about to be bankrupted and possibly sent to prison, is bailed out by the kind donations of the townsfolk who love him — gets played over and over on its lonesome, to remind us that happy endings do happen, people are generally alright and there may even be angels (in the guises of smiling old men, in this case Henry Travers’ Clarence).
This capper also serves to distract us from one issue: everything that’s come before this sudden, final high note has been a litany of failure and disappointments that have driven our hero to suicide. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a stone-cold masterpiece, but not for the reasons many think.
Capra, working from a script adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story “The Greatest Gift,” details its protagonist's existence all the way up to his big low point. George dreamed of an adventurous, prosperous life. Instead he had to compromise, settling for less at every turn. (Or nearly every turn: He does get to wed pretty Mary, played by Donna Reed.) He saves other people — his brother, a child almost poisoned by a careless pharmacist — only to be forced to stay in Thomas Kinkade-y but backwards Bedford Falls, New York. As George finds his life unraveling, thanks to petty, rich and generally Scrooge-ish slumlord Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), even his family becomes not a calming salve but a claustrophobia-inducing nuisance.
But Capra’s only getting warmed up. Driven to the brink, George tries to throw himself off a bridge — only to be stopped by kindly Clarence. To dissuade him, Clarence shuffles George into an alternate universe, one in which he had never been born. Thus begins one of the freakiest nightmare sequences ever devised, with George discovering that, without his presence, Bedford Falls became a miserable, loose town, fully under the sway of Mr. Potter, who has renamed it "Pottersville." His brother, whom he was not there to save, is dead, while his beloved Mary is a spinster librarian — a librarian! (The sequence is arguably a touch over-the-top, but it gets the job done.)
Having precisely sketched one man’s path to killing himself, the film gets to its triumphant, heart-warming finale. The sentimentality is totally earned — and yet, as with “The Wizard of Oz,” is everything fixed? George still had to settle for much less than he desired, and if anything he has even more things to keep him stuck in Bedford Falls, which remains, to a degree, controlled by a miserly businessman. You could also point out that George had no idea he was so loved until he was really in a ditch. Where were they before he tried to murder himself? People only seem to make their love known when you're at your worst.
Still, it’s a glass-half-full/-half-empty situation: You could argue that one should learn to build a life based on friends and family, not on shallow desires, like world travel and wealth; or you could argue that, this may be true, but getting out of a podunk town that overly relies on you and makes you want to jump off a bridge is a good thing. It’s a cosmic film, one that understands that life is full of compromise and aging is little more than recognizing your limitations and losing interest in the things you cannot, for whatever reason, ever, ever do.
Capra himself knew this, too. He was a comic filmmaker who, like Leo McCarey (“Duck Soup,” “An Affair to Remember”), smoothly segued into more serious fare. Starting in the 1930s, he became increasingly known for populist fare that spoke to the ills of a desperate nation. “You Can’t Take It With You,” which won Best Picture in 1938, has become a libertarian favorite, chiefly due to a scene where wealthy patriarch calmly and cheerfully outlines why he doesn’t need to pay taxes. The very title “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is synonymous with an idealistic, small town do-gooder (Jimmy Stewart, again) pointing out the corruption and hypocrisies in government.
Capra himself became a folk hero, one whose biggest fans hung on his every word and even begged him — unsuccessfully — to become a Mr. Smith himself and enter politics. When he broke from this and started making more straightforward comedies — like the enjoyably chaotic “Arsenic and Old Lace” movie — he lost his audience. Like George Bailey, he became stuck in a position he may have never quite wanted, and didn’t know how to break free. Then again, if he hadn’t made “It’s a Wonderful Life,” wouldn’t the holiday season be a Gomorrah-like hellscape like Pottersville? No, probably not. We’d still have “The Ref.”