Now perhaps the most beloved American film, It's a Wonderful Life
was largely forgotten for years, due to a copyright quirk. Only in the late 1970s did it find its audience through repeated TV showings. Frank Capra's masterwork deserves its status as a feel-good communal event, but it is also one of the most fascinating films in the American cinema, a multilayered work of Dickensian density. George Bailey (played superbly by James Stewart) grows up in the small town of Bedford Falls, dreaming dreams of adventure and travel, but circumstances conspire to keep him enslaved to his home turf. Frustrated by his life, and haunted by an impending scandal, George prepares to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. A heavenly messenger (Henry Travers) arrives to show him a vision: what the world would have been like if George had never been born. The sequence is a vivid depiction of the American Dream gone bad, and probably the wildest thing Capra ever shot (the director's optimistic vision may have darkened during his experiences making military films in World War II). Capra's triumph is to acknowledge the difficulties and disappointments of life, while affirming--in the teary-eyed final reel--his cherished values of friendship and individual achievement. It's a Wonderful Life
was not a big hit on its initial release, and it won no Oscars (Capra and Stewart were nominated); but it continues to weave a special magic. --Robert Horton
The legendary James Stewart (Harvey, Vertigo
) stars as George Bailey. George is a noble man who has spent much of his life on a crusade to stop shady local businessman Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore – Treasure Island, Duel in the Sun
) from taking over the picturesque town of Bedford Falls. However, on a typically snow-covered Christmas Eve, George plays right into Potter's hands when his uncle manages to lose a considerable amount of their family business' money on the way to the bank. Ironically, Potter discovers the missing money and hides it, knowing that its disappearance will tarnish the Baileys' white-than-white reputation. Taking responsibility for the shortage and realising that he faces prison, George attempts to kill himself but in a bizarre twist of fate is visited by a guardian angel. In true Dickensian style, George's newfound friend gives him the opportunity to glimpse a world without him in it and the repercussions his absence has on his nearest and dearest.
Nominated for numerous Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director) and ranking at number 11 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest movies, Director Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Lost Horizon) managed to create a poignant and feel-good film that has stood the test of time and is rightly considered to be the quintessential Christmas classic.