There is a temptation to look upon old classics of any medium and view them with disdain or disinterest because they were created so far outside our own temporal frame of reference, and surely must be out of touch with anything that might still matter to us as audience members. It’s easy to imagine that this phenomenon is more acute in today’s hyper-accelerated social media sphere, but it has probably been like this since some neanderthal groaned about how the punks in the next cave over don’t appreciate the cave drawings of yesteryear. We are reminded of this around the holidays, when certain movies beloved by generations gone by make the rounds (sometimes with merciless repetition). But if we let our shields down for just a second, we might discover that our grandparents made some pretty terrific art, too, which can speak just as loudly, clearly and sweetly to us today as it did a couple of lifetimes ago. And for this, we might do well to look to that most quintessential of American Christmas movies, a feel-good story about the worth of a single person and the ripples we make by a life lived well. It is as much movie about grace, endurance and love as it is a mission statement for those who have endured the greatest of hardships and need assurance that even their best years are yet to come. It is a movie that has been widely hailed as one of the greatest ever made, and remains as relevant today as it did way back in 1946: Frank Capra’s master class in sentimentality, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The story takes place on Christmas Eve 1945, and George Bailey stands on the edge of a bridge contemplating suicide. At just 38, he is financially ruined, having been outdone by his rock-ribbed rival, the miserly tycoon Harry Potter. George has given up his life’s dreams to be there for others, and now, he senses he has utterly failed in that, and imagines he is worth more to those around him if he is dead than if he still draws breath. But those in his life know he is suffering and pray for divine help for George. So, he is visited by Clarence Odbody, an angel-in-training who will earn his wings if he saves George from final self-destruction. Through a series of flashbacks conjured by Clarence, we see the episodes of George’s life—both high and low—that brought him to his current state. But more importantly, we see glimpses of what the world would be like if George had never existed at all, showing that George has indeed made the world a far more rich and wondrous place just by being in it, and just by being himself. The message Clarence gives George is clear: what he does with his own life is his business. But if he thinks that taking himself out of the equation won’t hurt the many others whose own lives are intertwined with his own, well, he might want to rethink things a little.
This is one of those movies that was made right after WWII, by people who had fought in the war and contributed to its efforts in many different ways. Director Frank Capra had been a chief propagandist for the United States. Jimmy Stewart had flown bomber missions over Germany. Both were part of an entire generation of people who had lives disrupted by the greatest conflict of all time, somehow survived that horrific firestorm, and came home wondering how to pick up where they left off. Capra, well known for his highly sentimental style, chose a story written before the war about a good man who had put his life on hold for others, and when pushed to the brink of despair, deserved an external perspective to help him regain his own. Stewart, who by some accounts came back from the war a far more hollowed-out version of who he was before it, needed to reconnect with his work to feel something that pointed to a future beyond the carnage he—and so many of his colleagues—wanted to put behind them.
Together, they created a story that on its surface is a sweet yarn about a nice guy who could use a little help, about how friends are worth far more than money, and about how goodness and decency can prevail over cynicism and selfishness. But It’s a Wonderful Life is not just some dollop of reckless optimism. It crafts an ersatz America that never really existed and then puts it all in jeopardy by showing us a glimpse of a much darker, much more real world that is George’s alternative. He can choose: a world where the despair he feels is woven into the fabric of everything, or a world where his failures are the price of a life spent looking toward the sun. George picks the latter—a choice made easy by the prospect of everything he ever loved having been ruined by his own oblivion—and runs home with a new-found joy for life in his breast. It may not be a particularly realistic turn of events, and it certainly may not ring true with those who have survived the all-to-inescapable pain of depression and suicide. After all, in the real world, there may be just as many guardian angels as there are in Bedford Falls, but they sure do feel a lot farther away sometimes.
But the movie’s moment of truth—when we see that George’s real guardian angels aren’t the ones earning their wings, but those treading the same ground as he does—tells us something that is always worth remembering, even in our darkest moments, however they came to be: We are all in this together. We are loved. And we are never, ever, ever alone.