LOOKING BACK AT A HOLIDAY CLASSIC

By Michael Mottern

Movie Review: “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an anti-capitalist 1947 holiday film for the Social Democratic Christmas spirit, made when Norman Thomas was around. Directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and a host of other well-known stars of the late 1940s. Rated G as a family drama. 

As a disabled American suffering from bipolar disorder, I don’t think there is an individual that hasn’t, in rough times, contemplated suicide. In these times, most holiday films – especially Hallmark ones – want to make us do just that, because that’s how bad these films are! Other holiday films like “A Christmas Story” or “Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas” truly capture the essence of the holidays and give us a great story – like comedy and puppetry. However, there is one holiday film in particular that is both anti-capitalist and puts me in tears every time I see it. The movie is “It’s a Wonderful Life”. 

One of the most critically acclaimed holiday films of all time, it made its debut after World War II and incorporates powerful drama with laughs in some scenes. It centers on the life of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who is at odds with a horrible banking and real estate tycoon, Mr Potter, a rich corporate fat cat “Monopoly Man” who tries to buy up the town George lives in, Bedford Falls. After making a name for himself in the town, George realizes being on top is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Some parts of the film seem very cliched, like a bad sexist joke. There is the part when Mary, George Bailey’s wife, is referred to as an “old maid”, as if a woman librarian truly needed a man in her life to be successful. But the dominant theme emerges when George, the savior of the town, falls on rough times and is literally touched by an angel by the name of Clarence when George tries to commit suicide. (Fortunately, the tone of sorrow and despair is leavened with comedy).  

The movie’s spooky but very realistic final half hour shows George getting to finally see what the world would be like without him. The town he lives in is no longer called Bedford Falls but Pottersville, filled with speakeasies and “girls’ clubs” – not at all the town in which George hoped he would wake up. In the George Bailey saga, his wonderful life proved to be a true Christmas miracle. It exemplifies the butterfly effect that says everything in life has repercussions. The film itself inspired me to think what would the world be like without…me. How the true character of a man or woman can be tested in hard times, and how reality as bitter as today’s can make us rethink what a wonderful life we truly have.

The movie is about an hour and a half long. It is a truly remarkable film that is thought provoking and poignant, on a par with “Mr Smith goes to Washington.”  I give it five stars for being a great family drama that tried to be inclusive of women and African Americans. Given the overt racism of the Jim Crow era, that says something. Note: in the early 1990s there was a Christmas movie very similar to this one with George Bailey’s character depicted as a woman. While not as good a movie as the original, it does help us understand how characters in films, especially old classics, can switch gender roles.

Michael Mottern is Vice Chair of Social Democrats USA.

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