You think you know it. You think you know that it’s a sweetly old-fashioned bit of Hollywood melodrama, the kind of thing that built director Frank Capra’s reputation as the cinematic patron saint of small-town Americana. And if that’s true, then maybe it’s time for you to take another look.
The Salt Lake Film Society once again offers its holiday free screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve and Christmas night, a rare opportunity to share in a 35mm projected viewing of the 1946 classic. But like many films that have been retroactively acknowledged as masterpieces, this one was a financial disappointment upon its initial release, and New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther dismissed Capra’s “sentimentality” and his “optimistic and facile” way of resolving his dramatic conflicts.
But while the story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) might linger most in the memory for its life-affirming, angel-wing-granting reassurance that our existence matters to the world around us, this is actually a much more complex story than that. Consider George’s arc from a young man with big dreams of seeing the world to responsible citizen who has to make peace with what he has given up. Rewatch the way Stewart plays his proposal to Mary (Donna Reed), which suggests just as much despair at impending domesticity as joy. It is indeed a wonderful movie—just maybe not in the ways you’ve gotten used to thinking that it is.