By Ryan Wilson

Each Christmas season the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life gets trotted out for mostly sentimental reasons. The movie is played several times on primetime television, and smart movie houses screen the picture for audiences yearning to experience it all again on the big screen. At the Music Box theater in Chicago the movie is preceded by a sing-along accompanied by an antique organ. The film then gets the Rocky Horror Picture Show treatment in which the audience actively reacts to various lines and moments in the film.

I appreciate this sort of celebration, not just because it keeps a classic film active and alive, but also because I appreciate It's a Wonderful Life as a work of art. The term "Capraesque," which refers to the gee-whiz American optimism of director Frank Capra, is my favorite "esque" behind "Kafkaesque," and just as valid regarding its view of mid-twentieth century life.

If we really think about it, isn't the existence of Capra's George Bailey just as dire as that of Kafka's Gregor Samsa. George doesn't wake up transformed into a giant bug, but he's essentially treated like one for much of the film. The difference, of course, is that Capra tells us at the end of George's story that life is worth such abuse. Yet, I've always found the most exceptional moments of Capra’s masterpiece to counter this message. These are the "non-wonderful" moments that ring most true in the film.

Take, for example, early in the movie when George is still a boy and has lost his hearing in one ear after rescuing his brother by jumping into an ice floe. He takes a job working for the town pharmacist, who, we learn, has just lost his own son to influenza. In his drunk grief, the druggist accidentally poisons the capsules George is to deliver. Smart and responsible, George doesn't deliver the pills, but the consequence is that the drunk and grieving druggist begins to beat him. This always strikes me as a remarkably cruel moment in a film that strives to celebrate each and every moment in a life.

Of course, the violence is resolved almost as soon as it begins; the druggist recognizes his mistake, and his wrath instantaneously becomes an embrace. Yet it's the cruelty in this brief childhood moment that engages us, that we can be punished for doing the noble deed. Two later moments in the film also mingle spite and compassion.

It's a Wonderful Life contains perhaps the most dysfunctional romantic scene I've ever seen. This is when George is a young man and frustrated with his lot in life. He unintentionally visits Mary, who cares for him, and awkwardly shares a telephone call with her. As they talk to her fiancé on the other end of the phone, we can see the pain on George's face. Not because he’s jealous of the fiancé but because he is unhappy with his own fate. As the fiancé speaks of future plans greater than George, the anger and tension build, until finally George throws the receiver down and begins to berate Mary about what he does and does not want. He shakes her to get his point across, and she begins to weep over her failed intentions with him. Yet in typical Capra fashion, the anger transforms into love, into caring, as if this were its natural progression.

Finally, near the end of the movie, when George is a desperate man whose company has lost a sizable chunk of money, he returns home on Christmas Eve. This, to me, is the most important scene of the film because we simultaneously see his affection for his family as well as the frustration he has for them. In the scene, he clutches his children dearly to him then moments later erupts at them for essentially ruining his life. He privately exhibits good parenting with his sick daughter, yet publicly abuses the older children for impeding his progress in life. Capra would have us believe that George "is not himself" here, but I always view the scene as the moment in the film where George is most himself, when all of his failures and frustrations confront the love and the family he's been fortunate to earn. Of course, Capra's answer to this crisis is to resort to prayer, and so we end up with a climax that blends some magical realism with a bit of deus ex machina, which is actually what the film is best remembered for: the angel Clarence showing George what life would be without him. I don't begrudge the movie this choice because the genius of Capra's scenario is that George isn't "saved" by the deities that watch over him but by himself and by the man he's been to others throughout his life.

It's a Wonderful Life gets a good bit of grief from serious critics for its sentimental moments, and they are there to be sure, from Zuzu's "petals" to Clarence's "wings." But what transcends the film, what has made it hold up throughout the years, is the dark center inside its shiny package. The movie subtly asks us to consider more than just life without us. It asks us to consider how to live with unhappiness, and how to turn a cruel fate into something we can value. What better present is there than that?

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio. 

© Ryan Wilson, 2010