10th Dec, 2016

'It's A Wonderful Life' as timeless as figgy pudding

Stratford Editorial 26th Dec, 2015 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

Observer reporter Les Reid explains why Frank Capra classic is favourite festive film:

THE FRANK Capra classic ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (1946) is a powerful evocation of Christmas’ past with a tear-jerking message about the importance of family and community.

But this Christmas favourite from the classical Hollywood period, starring a young James Stewart, is far more than that.

Hollywood studios were under commercial pressure to deliver happy endings.

But the famous visitation by Clarence the angel on Christmas Eve which makes suicidal George Bailey finally realise the value of his life to others is somewhat open-ended.

The viewer is taken through a dark representation of a commercially corrupt America, all sleazy neon lights and big business corruption in the post-Wall Street Crash and post-1930s recession United States. Once friendly neighbours have become strangers.

The Hollywood ‘film noir’ world of crime and alienation which had become popular on the movie screens of the 1940s is mixed with the struggle to keep up appearances of an ideal American way of life.

The cultural idea of a repressive and crushing small town America and its family values is laid bare as the young George seeks escape. His “lassoing the moon” symbolises his desire to explore everything outside the small town – in the male angst cowboy tradition of John Ford westerns, later Hitchcock and even Bruce Springsteen songs.

But it is George who is “lassoed” and roped in by his romantic co-star Donna Reed, who plays Mary Bailey.

Despite his longing to travel the world, our hero is also sucked back in to the small town Bedford Falls by his desire to do good. It includes keeping up the family building and loan business to provide affordable housing, and defeat the greedy Potter who is seeking to get rich at the expense of ordinary townsfolk.

In his moment of extreme crisis, Clarence the angel shows George how much worse Bedford Falls would have been had it not been for plucky George’s interventions in helping others.

The film is often talked about as something of a flop at the box office in its time.

Yet 70 years on, its annual TV broadcasting makes it as timeless a Christmas classic as figgy pudding.