It’s a Wonderful Life: my most overrated Christmas film

Frank Capra’s classic movie is a celebration of picket-fence smugness. Boring Bedford Falls would have been better had George Bailey never lived – from the magical, sleazy bar to the bowling alley

Well hot dog dickety damn, what is it about this film that makes people love it so much? Is it the bit where the black maid gets spanked back into her kitchen? The bit where the little people of Bedford Falls joyously tip out their entire life savings to rescue the bungling banker? Is it the snappy dialogue? “You’re 18!” our hero George Bailey, played by James Stewart, exclaims at one point. “Why, it was only last year you were 17!”

I don’t, by the way, think It’s a Wonderful Life is terrible. I just think it’s frequently wrongheaded and desperately overlong, with more suburban prejudice than Margaret Thatcher at a Grantham fete. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the key section when George, facing ruin over misplaced money, contemplates leaping to his death off a bridge.

A guardian angel talks the boozed-up savings-and-loans man out of it, then decides to show him what life in Bedford Falls would have been like had he never lived. We are then led through Pottersville, as this alternative town is called – a nightmarish den of vice and depravity, full of stumbling people, blaring sirens and flashing neon.

On the brink … James Stewart contemplates suicide in It's a Wonderful Life.
On the brink … James Stewart contemplates suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life. Photograph: PR

And it looks absolutely magic. It’s certainly a million miles away from soporific Bedford Falls, with its bow-tied early risers saying hee-haw to each other on street corners. To the sound of swinging Dixieland jazz, the camera follows an increasingly horrified George through this vision of hell. There’s the (shock!) Dime-a-Dance Club welcoming jitterbuggers. There’s the (horror!) Blue Moon bowling alley. There’s the (shriek!) Bamboo Rooms cocktail lounge.

The terrors don’t stop there. When George and Clarence, as his angel is called, stop off for a drink at a Pottersville bar, there are people smoking. There is raucous laughter and a black guy playing boogie-woogie piano. There is even a grumpy barman – with stubble. When Clarence orders a mulled wine heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves, he is told: “Look mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast.” The two are tossed out face-first into the snow.

It's a Wonderful Life
Martini’s bar, before the descent into Pottersville. Mind you, that guy on George’s left is about to deck him Photograph: taken from picture library

It’s the sort of bar I dream about, the sort of bar bars are meant to be. It reminds me of a long-gone dive in Glasgow that used to serve whisky or double whisky – and if you wanted Coke or lemonade you could go to the chip shop, pal. But then George goes and ruins everyone’s fun, deciding to live and finding himself transported back to Bedford Falls for a victory dash down its high street, now restored to its boring state. Jubilant and cheering, he jogs past a school uniform shop (I’m not making this up), a gown store, and the Bijou cinema showing The Bells of St Mary’s, a film about a priest and a nun trying to save a school.

t's a Wonderful Life.
‘Nauseatingly wholesome’ … Clarence and George Bailey. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/RKO

It’s a picket fence of a film, nauseatingly wholesome as it trundles through 1940s America like a station wagon on its way back from the mall, a celebration of everything that later directors – from Todd Haynes with Far from Heaven to David Lynch with Blue Velvet – would come to mock.

And then there’s that misplaced money. Uncle Billy, who works with George, takes $8,000 in cash along to the bank. That’s the equivalent of about $130,000 today. And he just sort of dodderingly counts it out and then accidentally puts it inside a newspaper and then accidentally puts that newspaper on baddie Mr Potter’s lap.

I mean really? How would you be with $130,000 in cash? Maybe slightly careful. Maybe very careful. Maybe totally paranoid actually. It’s a scene that is as staggeringly unconvincing as it is badly shot, about as believable as George lasso-ing the moon. And the whole film hinges on it.

True, up until that point, the fact that Uncle Billy is one loan short of a portfolio has been Very Loudly Telegraphed, but this only makes it worse, transferring the blame to George for trusting such a glaring buffoon with a fortune in cash.

Weighing in at 135 minutes, Wonderful Life isn’t the longest film ever made but it sometimes feels like it. Single shot scenes – like the one in which the Baileys chat at the dinner table, or George and Mary meander home from the dance – stretch on for what feels like days. Maybe director Frank Capra just fell asleep behind the lens. Presumably, these weren’t the scenes scripted by an uncredited Dorothy Parker.

Apparently Seneca Falls, a town in upstate New York, holds an It’s a Wonderful Life festival every year. It claims to have been the inspiration for Bedford Falls, Capra having visited there in 1945. Remind me never to go.

Hee-haw! And Merry Christmas everybody!


Andrew Gilchrist

The GuardianTramp

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