The 75 year anniversary of “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Photo by Tim Harrison

The term “classic” has been affixed to many films and the label is one of the highest compliments any movie can hope to attain.

Being called “a classic” means not only that it is of high quality, but that its popularity has remained consistent or has grown since its release.

It has become a mainstay in the discussion of cinema and will be rewatched for generations to come.

We are familiar with the term as we hear it associated with some of the most celebrated films of all time. Films like The Empire Strikes Back (1980), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Godfather (1972) and even more contemporary films like The Avengers (2012) are beginning to be labeled with the same distinction.

While these films are nothing to scoff at, perhaps the most impressive classic films are the ones that have endured the longest.

To many, the 1940s served as an important decade for film where some of the all-time great pictures would be made. For me, there are three American films from this era that stand above the rest. Citizen Kane (1941), Casablanca (1942) and the greatest Christmas film ever:It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

This upcoming Christmas will mark the 75-year anniversary of this monumental film. Perhaps it is worth taking a minute to look back on it and see just what makes this film such a classic. Perhaps we can find something within the film that is still relevant to us in the year 2021.

In looking at It’s a Wonderful Life there are many things we can point to and say “that’s what makes this film a classic.”

In reality, it is a combination of several factors that makes the film so fondly remembered today.

The main character of George Bailey is played by Jimmy Stewart, and while Jimmy would go on to star in many other films — including some of Hitchcock’s finest work – he would always be best known for his role in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Jimmy was perfectly cast for the role of George, making some admittedly goofy dialogue sound much more tolerable and endearing. His co-star Donna Reed, while having a less iconic performance and playing a character that wasn’t particularly nuanced in the 1940s, still acted extremely well. It is a shame she is so often overshadowed by Jimmy. Mentioning the notable performances in this film would be incomplete had I neglected to mention Lionel Barrymore’s portrayal of Mr. Potter as there has rarely been a villain that was so easy to hate. Mr. Potter is one of the early pioneers of the greedy, filthy-rich villain stereotype that has been often replicated, but never duplicated. 

The film is very dated, but that’s more a part of its charm than a detraction. Be it the outdated terms, settings, or costumes, there is a sense of nostalgia I feel when watching the film despite it being released long before my birth. On a similar note, the way time passes isn’t just a gimmick but serves an actual purpose. Lesser films may use the passage of time  as a way to make things more interesting, whereas in It’s a Wonderful Life, the passage of time is integral to the story and George’s arc.

Perhaps what the film is most famous for was for creating the guardian angel archetype that shows protagonists what life would be like without them. This has been redone and parodied countless times by now, but few have been as effective as the original. The way George’s town transformed without his existence had some really good sets and details that made George’s reaction all the more believable.While it’s something of an old-school notion, there is something to be said for a story having a moral. Stories with incredible twists, satisfying conclusions, or ambiguous meanings are all very interesting, but some stories want to say something definitive that relates not only to the film but to life as a whole.

The best way I could describe It’s a Wonderful Life would be by calling it a movie with a soul.

By its end, the moral is clear: Appreciate what you have, and when life gets rough, don’t forget the things you take for granted. This rings as true today as it did in the 40s, perhaps more so. We live in an age where people dedicate  much of their time to working hard to achieve their goals. This is a good thing of course, but often in the pursuit of our aspirations, we may lose sight of the things that are really important like people in our lives. It’s a Wonderful Life teaches us that no matter how grim our situation may seem to be, there are always people who care about us and that despite all of the suffering and hardships we endure it really is a wonderful life we live.

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