It’s a Wonderful Life review – Capra's Christmas cracker shines anew

A crisis in housing, a racist ruling class and a struggle against a hideous ego-plutocrat who names everything after himself – this 1946 classic still resonates

‘If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan, there’ll never be another decent house built in this town. He’s already got charge of the bank. He’s got the bus line. He got the department stores. And now he’s after us!” Poor George Bailey gets a vision of awful, grasping Potter getting everything and naming everything after himself: Pottersville, a hideous ego-plutocrat takeover. And if he had a hotel chain, it would be called something alliterative, no doubt, like … Potter Palace?

And so Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life comes back to UK cinemas for the umpteenth Christmas runout. The movie which gained mixed notices on release, became wildly popular on US television in the mid-70s when the copyright lapsed and it could be broadcast for nothing – the networks took to showing it every year, to a wave of love and an illusory sense that it had always been this popular. (In 1993, Republic Pictures managed to regain its copyright, ending this gratis TV bonanza which had put their movie in the homes and hearts of millions of Americans. It’s an object lesson in how the small screen isn’t always the enemy of cinephilia.)

James Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life.
James Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Can there really be anything new to say in 2018 about It’s a Wonderful Life? Well, maybe. George Bailey, unforgettably played by James Stewart, is progressively forced to abandon his dreams of world travel and college education to stay home and look after the Bailey family’s saving and loan business. His dad tells him: “I feel that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace.” Young audiences in 1946, or 1976, could hear those lines and nod. Not now. The idea of young people owning their own place in the UK looks as distant and dated as the automobiles and clothes of prewar Bedford Falls.

The Baileys’ casual, but affectionate treatment of their African-American “help” in the early scenes (the Baileys can’t afford it later on) may be uncomfortable — Annie is incidentally played by Lillian Randolph, a great comic actor and beautiful gospel singer. But the racism of the ruling class, as represented by Potter, is plain enough, as he seeks to maintain a serf class of tenantry. Bailey helps an Italian-American family buy their house, to the fury of Potter: “Playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters!”

There being no place like home is commonplace enough in the movies, but it’s traditional to allow the traveller his or her experience of Oz, before they realise this. George Bailey stays in Kansas. His freaky “Oz” experience is to see his happy, sociable, public-spirited community turned into a harsher place without him being there. For me, the most powerful moment in the picture comes when George, drunk and despairingly aggressive in a bar, and faced with ruin and prosecution because his hapless Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) has lost the firm’s money is punched in the face by the husband of the teacher he has just upset by yelling at her on the phone. It is a brutal defeat without honour for Bailey, a grisly descent into (temporary) despair, before his redemption.

It’s also a mild surprise, every time I see the film, to realise that the trainee angel Clarence (Henry Travers) really only appears in the final quarter of the drama, clutching a copy of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (which by the way is the nearest the film has to a false, or anyway evasive note. Surely the book he should be carrying is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol?) The fantasy or whimsy of Clarence’s existence does not greatly affect the realist tenor of the story as a whole, which is so important for inducing the audience to make an emotional investment in George and his family, an outlay of the heart which happens in tandem with the townspeople entrusting him with their savings. Always a joy to see this film.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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