It’s A Wonderful Life: A Truly Happy Family Film?

George Bailey's suicide attempt.
George Bailey’s suicide attempt.

For decades now, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life has been considered the quintessence of the Christmas family film. A film which perfectly embodies and diffuses American values, the kind of film that praises the family spirit and is suitable for young audiences. Yet Capra’s work is far from being all nice and happy and the amount of pain and desperation the spectator has to go through before the ending’s relief is immense. Can It’s A Wonderful Life still be considered an innocent light-toned family classic and is its ending a truly happy resolution? Let’s focus on the character of George within Bedford Fall’s domestic matrix and ask ourselves this question: what if family was depicted more as an entrapment rather than a space of liberty and togetherness?

The film focuses on George Bailey (James Stewart), a young man who dreams of leaving the little town of Bedford Falls to see the world’s wonders and accomplish great things. After his father’s death, George inherits the family’s loan company, a business he never had an interest in working for, and a life he never wanted to live. He is constantly opposed to Mr. Potter, a rich skinflint who wants to own the town. Overwhelmed by family obligations and a sense of responsibility toward his community, he bitterly gives up his dreams and sees opportunities pass him by. On Christmas Eve, when his uncle  loses the business’s $8,000, George contemplates ending his life until he is met by his guardian angel, Clarence, who shows him what life in Bedford, recalled Pottersville, would be without him.

By tracing the life of George in relation to his family and his town, Capra reflects upon the social place of an individual within his community and his family. Family is presented as an entrapment for George who is unable to define himself outside his role as Peter Bailey’s (Samuel S. Hinds) son, Mary’s (Donna Reed) husband and as the patriarch (the father of his children but also of his community). George’s difficult relationship with his father, his wife and his children shows his reluctance to belong to one place and be attached to others. Yet the film ends on George’s realisation that he needs his family in order to live, presenting the family unit as a space of happiness and security but also as a savior and a need.

I. The Tense Relationship with Patriarchy

Peter  and George Bailey: the father-son relationship.
Peter and George Bailey: the father-son relationship.

One way in which George feels trapped within the family sphere is through his relationship to his father. The father figure is socially perceived at the heart of the family with unquestionable authority and morality, and carries out American idealistic values of domesticity and financial success. The father provides solidity and income to support his family. According to Leland Poague, the male subject is perceived as ‘the ultimate source of paternal authority and reward’ thus an example to follow for the son. When George as a child realises that Mr. Gower has mistakenly filled a prescription with poison, not knowing what to do, he finds the answer in a pipe advertisement carrying the reassuring inscription ‘Ask Dad, he knows’. This shows how society promoted the idea of an all-knowing patriarchal authority, increasing people’s expectations towards the father.

One anticipates that Peter Bailey will resolve his son’s crisis yet when George arrives in the office, he witnesses the lowering of his father’s authority by Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Unable to cope with the idea that his father is a ‘failure’, he shouts at Potter and is being carried out by his own father who dismisses his ask for help, leaving George further removed from patriarchal security. This experience forges George’s future reluctance to work for Bailey Building and Loan Association as he associates the office with Potter’s supremacy and his father’s weaker position, thus it creates a gap between them.

George and Peter have very different conceptions of life: Peter’s is anchored in selflessness as he sees a moral and social utility in his job whereas George sees in it entrapment and mediocrity: “being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office […] I’d go crazy, I want to do something big and something important”. His father explains to him that these are not necessarily measured in material units but that what he does is ‘satisfying a fundamental urge […] deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace”. Peter stands as the embodiment of moral American values based on domesticity, an example George is meant to follow. Compared to his father, his dreams are regarded as selfish which accentuates the gap between the father and the son.

George is torn between living up to the ‘self-sacrificing ideal of conduct’ represented by Peter and living the life of his imagination, fantasies his father does not acknowledge. At dinner, Peter questions George’s future plans just as he is about to leave: is he genuinely ignorant of his son’s ambitions which would show how distant they are from each other, or is he trying to dissuade George from his hopes? Either way, he negates his son’s wishes again which accentuates George’s fear of paternal deafness, of not being heard or understood, and hence increases his desire to exist outside the community and live grand adventures.

Peter’s death snares George into embracing the small-town lifestyle and running the family business. What ties George to the loan company is just the name on the door -because it is a family run business, he is forced to succeed his father thus he is entrapped by his family name: ‘like the young Hamlet, George is haunted by the spirit of a dead father whose place is literally asked to take’. Since he is the eldest, George has to assume the role of the patriarch which means giving up his dreams. Confined to this new responsibility, he provides for his mother and brother, who goes to college. When Harry comes back, George has to give up on the hope of his brother replacing him at the bank as the latter now has a wife who offers him a job. This new family is an obstacle to George who is sent back to his trap.

When the family is gathered in happiness around Harry and his new wife, George stands outside, alone, smoking a cigarette in the darkness. In this shot, the use of deep focus establishes the contrast between the joyful family celebrating inside the house and George, crushed by the weight of his father’s legacy and the realisation that his dreams are yet again compromised. As George moves away, the window becomes blurry and the family fades away, illustrating George’s alienation, losing touch with his peers. The sound of a train in the distance represents his dream slipping away from him just as he throws the travel leaflets away, reluctantly accepting his fate. This creates an internalised rage within George who is forced to become the new fatherly figure, a rage he unleashes against his family and especially, against Mary and the domestic ideal she represents.

II. The Traps of Married Life

George (James Stewart) and Mary (Donna Reed): the couple faces trouble
George (James Stewart) and Mary (Donna Reed): the couple faces trouble…

Mary seems to act as the primary mechanism that entraps George in Bedford Falls. With her, George has to be a husband and father, ties that prevent him from acceding to his dreams. Mary’s dreams seem antithetical to George’s, imbued in the American idealisation of the domestic sphere. Sullivan states that ‘the romance Mary perceives is one of stability and rootedness, of domesticity and a lived-in, close-at hand history and is antithetical to the escapist romance that appeals to George’. The image of ‘lassoing the moon’ is representative of the binary opposition between George and Mary’s fantasies. While George sees in the metaphor a playful exploit that matches his desires for adventure, Mary responds to it affectionately, acknowledging his aspirations, mockingly by caricaturing it and possessively, reducing ‘George to an image she creates and holds within her hands’. Thus Mary drives George into domestic life, a stability that scares him, marriage being a new prison of social expectations.

Being tied to a woman is seen as an emasculation: when meeting Mary at the ball, George refuses to be a ‘wet nurse’, envisioning a potential closeness with Mary as something that will effeminate him in a mothering role. Later, Potter presents the family as a burden to George and describes him as ‘trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters’. The idea of nursing suggests that George has to be responsible for others which prevents him from thinking about himself, thus a family with Mary means confinement and loss of independence.

Although George and Mary’s relationship seems conventional, the seduction process is not, tainted with George’s strong reluctance to settle down. The proposal scene is illustrative of George’s conflicting desires. He is waiting outside Mary’s house and struggles to get through the fence, a symbol for his lost dreams and bitter hopes that prevent him from reaching Mary and foreshadows the future struggles they will have to face. While she turns her back on us, waiting for George to enter her life, he moves towards her slowly, reluctantly, which creates an oppressive distance between them.

Later, it is their closeness that becomes oppressive – the tight close-up on them while they listen to Sam on the phone frames the couple squeezed together, George resisting ‘the proximity to Mary and the enforced intimacy’. Thus George is torn between his immediate desire for Mary and his long-life dreams. The proposal is representative of George’s powerlessness in decision-making – he violently tells Mary that he will never marry, then kisses her. The sudden editing to the wedding scene completely contradicts George, always forced to do what he didn’t intend to do in the first place, which highlights again the social pressures that urge George to embrace the traditional family life.

The proposal in It's A Wonderful Life
The unconventional proposal scene…

The honeymoon scene is significant in understanding how Mary convinces George to finally settle down. It is the moment he definitely gives up on his dreams, compelled to domesticity. George comes home to a place of comfort and restriction. Mary has done her best to recreate an exotic setting and fix the house in order to please George which is both endearing and entrapping. Mary brings her dream (the house) and his dream (the exotic) together in order to create new fantasies for George but it ultimately dismisses his true desires. The posters on the window shut him from the outside world, within the house he loathes, within home life. The rain infiltrates the house, a symbol for George’s dreams still pouring over the couple – are they ever going to fade away or will they continue to leak through the Baileys’ happiness, cultivating George’s frustration?

When George comes home after his uncle has lost the money, he releases this frustration against his perfectly conventional family, a perfection that makes him feel alien. As Robin Wood argues, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life manages a convincing and moving affirmation of the values of bourgeois family life. Yet what is revealed, when disaster releases George’s suppressed tensions, is the intensity of his resentment of the family and desire to destroy it’. In the image of this too perfect bourgeois family, George’s inner rage unleashes on his children. Whereas they are polite and angelic, George appears impolite and unsatisfied by this dreamy family. While they lovingly prepare Christmas, the time of the year when the family spirit is the strongest, George ferociously dismisses their efforts, going as far as telling Mary: ‘you call this a happy family, why did we have to have all these kids?’ Carney argues that having children for George entails him domestically, socially and financially, but also enacts his destiny in time which settles him forever within the family sphere. We can argue that George refuses his children to bare their father’s fate just like he refuses to define himself only as a father which leads him to dismiss them brutally in the face of his failure.

Crying and holding his child tightly shows him afraid and desperate. His children are forced to witness the father as weak, castrated, just like George witnessed his father’s authority being undermined. Annoyed by his own weakness, George verbally abuses them which shocks the children – they all look at him standing in one corner while he stands alone in another corner, an invisible frontier dressed between them. ‘Why must you torture the children?’ asks Mary which positions George as alien and abusive: he inflicts pain to them through his own suffering, a suffering they do not comprehend because the father cannot be weak. Thus George’s family assigns him to a patriarchal frame that he cannot assume which leads him to resent himself, trapped into a family life he cannot sustain.

III. The Duties towards the Community

George helping the community at the bank.
George helping the community at the bank.

A word on Bedford Falls’ community, which is also portrayed as a trap for George. We could argue that it can be perceived as George’s extended family, sharing the Baileys’ most joyful moments and depending on them in hard times. Peter Bailey dedicates his life to this extended family and provides them with the money to get houses of their own which he sees as morally rewarding. After his death, George is meant to take on this role within the community even though he desperately wants to leave town. But every time he is about to leave to pursue his own ambitions, he is pulled back by the citizens in need of him. A number of characters seem to be infantilised, like Clarence or Uncle Billy, and they significantly depend on George to get them out of the troubles their naiveté have lead them into.

The whole community knocks on George’s door for help, all imbued in this childishness and innocence that makes them easy targets for Potter. George seems to be the only one strong enough to prevent them from falling into Potter’s trap which makes him the fatherly figure of the community, a role he did not choose for himself. He is forced to reside in Bedford, trapped into being the provider, guide and savior of the community. Yet why has he always made the choice to come back to that community instead of leaving without turning back? This demonstrates another side of George with a greater sense of collectiveness forged by his father. George cares about the community and about his relatives and defines himself, even unwillingly, through them.

IV. Beyond Entrapment: Family as a Savior

James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's A Wonderful Life (Capra, 1945)
James Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s A Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946)

Paradoxically, the film also depicts the family and the community beyond their entrapping side – family is a need, a savior, a support for the individual and a generator of happiness. It’s A Wonderful Life is full of heart-warming family scenes which contribute to its reputation as a Christmas family classic. Every time the family gathers together, it is to celebrate joyous moments, often sharing their happiness with neighbours and friends. In the dinner scene, George and Harry tease their mother affectionately, lifting her up and dropping her on their father’s lap which leads to a tender scene between their parents. The family is shown as united and having fun around a good dinner, a traditional family portrayal. When Harry comes home, they all take a photo together outside, gathered in the warmth of reunion.

George’s wedding again shows the family in positive light, celebrating together in total closeness. George always takes part in these jovial moments and is seen as happy among his family and community. He even acts as a devoted father – when Mary tells him she is expecting a baby, George is over the moon. When Harry receives the medal of honour, George shares his delight with the community like a proud father. When drunk Uncle Billy goes home, George fondly makes sure he is going in the right direction like an amused and caring father. Thus George naturally assumes the fatherly role. The ending conveys his love for his family and his role within it. Back home, he ecstatically kisses his children and wife who hold him without letting go, blessed by the return of the patriarchal figure, strong and laughing. The reporter takes a photo, freezing the moment into eternal happiness. The community – the extended family – comes in to unite around the patriarch in the convivial Christmas spirit.

Family is also shown as a savior, a space of comfort, proximity and a protection against others in hard times. It is Mary who brings resolution to George’s problems by gathering the community into a unified action of help. George is overwhelmed by such an action, standing silently with a fixed smile. Through this action, he understands the value of family and solidarity. His desires are silenced and replaced by new ones, or rather the ones that were there all along, that kept restraining him from leaving town, the ones he could not see. When Violet tells him she has changed her mind and does not want to leave town, George realises that it is perfectly acceptable to have dreams of domesticity. He finally perceives the worth of his position and gets rewarded after all his sacrifices for the community. He understands that giving happiness to others makes him happy just like the community is happy to help him gathering money or arranging his honeymoon. Sullivan says that ‘George never totally subdues his desire to “do big things,” although, as he matures, marries, and starts a family, he manages to confine it to that which he can concretely accomplish within his bourgeois existence in Bedford Falls. […] The mature George Bailey seems contentedly resigned to lead the life of probity and charity that his father led before him’. Through his father’s principles, his wife and the community, George realises he is part of a loving space of comfort and support, and that he has a significant and concrete role to play in Bedford.

V. Family as a Need

It's A Wonderful Life ending: the family reunited
It’s A Wonderful Life ending: the family and the ‘extended family’ reunited around the patriarch.

The family is also presented as an existential need. One needs to be recognised by others in order to exist, exposing the self to the other’s gaze. George understands that he exists through others’ eyes, his actions being recognised by the community and his family. Jessica Benjamin explains this through the theory of intersubjectivity – human reality and identity are created and discovered between people by acts of mutual acknowledgement. The family is at the heart of this recognition as its existence depends on the acknowledgement of the other as part of the same unity. While others might neglect one’s existence (like Potter annihilates George or Peter), the family is always meant to support its members by recognising their actions and their belonging to a same unit and legacy. In the dark realms of Pottersville, George remains unrecognized by his family and friends which immediately eradicates him from existence. George is no longer the master of his actions and cannot live as a thinking entity if no one recognises his acts. He prays Clarence to get him back to his family where he can ‘live again’, unable to envision life without his family’s recognition.

Mary acts as George’s main ‘recognising agent’- we could argue that far from belittling his desires or anxieties she acknowledges them and is mutually attuned to share them. By recognising his wishes and fears, she grants him his humanity and pushes him to accept his belonging to Bedford Falls, a place that recognises him as an existent entity. Thus George’s responsibility for others allows him to exist. Realising this at the end, he accepts ‘meaning through the ties that bind: as Peter Bailey’s son, and Mary’s husband, as the father of his children’. Capra ends his film on the morale note that all men need to belong to a family and social unity in order to exist: ‘No man is poor who has one friend […] each man’s life touches so many other lives’ says the director. We all live in others as we define ourselves through this interconnection and depend on the other’s acknowledgement of our actions; family is needed to bring our existence into the concrete shores of reality.

In It’s A Wonderful Life, the theme of family and community is handled as an essential part of George’s characterization and is at the heart of the film’s moral and existential reflection on the value of one’s life. Family is portrayed as oppressive yet needed. George is trapped into the domestic sphere of Bedford Falls and has to define himself as a Bailey, only acknowledged through his role as a son, a husband, a father and a provider for the community. Tied by the responsibility of these roles, George’s dreams evolve from escapist fantasies to desires for domesticity as he understands the importance of his role within the family/community. Thus family is also portrayed as a savior, a loving space of comfort and protection that asserts George as an existing entity. Yet we could argue that if one needs family to be saved and recognised as a human being then one is always trapped within it, unable to exist beyond the family circle. Is the human condition, always linked to its belonging to the family dimension, a never-ending entrapment which denies any sense of independence?

Works Cited

– Carney, Ray ‘American Dreaming: It’s A Wonderful Life’, in American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986)

– Poague, Leland, Another Frank Capra (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005),

– Sullivan, Daniel J. “Sentimental Hogwash? On Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life”, Humanitas (2005), p.130. Web. 28th November 2014.

– Wood, Robin, ‘Ideology, Genre, Auteur’, in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Revised edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Ryan Errington

    Very intriguing article. I always saw George Bailey as one of many Capra protagonists whose sense of morality prevails against an antagonistic person or group. Though I respect your view that they are underlying dark themes which make George a tragic character.

    • Yes I agree that George Bailey’s sense of morality is very strong which is what actually entraps him, the eternal desires vs.moral conduct situation. But the film is not that black and white because we witness acts of certain abuse and violence from George against his family which shows his humanity – he is not perfect and he struggles to lead a moral life, which shows him in a more positive rather than negative light in my opinion 🙂

  2. Ben Hufbauer

    Thank you for this excellent analysis of the sometimes surprisingly grim themes found in this classic film.

  3. IAWL is a wonderful film. I just watched it again last night

  4. Sim Hatcher

    IAWL is a stylistic mess, going from whimsical fantasy to Norman Rockwell
    sentimentality to brutal realism, all in the same reel. If Capra had stuck to one style the result would have been a better film, but then again he was the director of a six hour Lost Horizon, about a place where nothing bad ever happens but the characters are compelled to talk about it for the length of the film.

    Anyone also remember Saturday Night Live’s “lost” ending to IAWL, where the grateful crowd at the Baileys turned into a mob attacking Old Man Potter?

    The lesson of IAWL? Don’t entrust a large wad of cash to a daffy old uncle, but be content with the disaster that ensues.

    • “going from whimsical fantasy to Norman Rockwell
      sentimentality to brutal realism, all in the same reel”

      You see, to me, that’s just one of it’s strengths. ‘Consistency of tone’ seems to be one of those things that film pundits trot out as a mark of quality. Whereas many of the greatest movies, in my opinion, can veer wildly in mood and style.

  5. Nicol Shipman

    Having only watched the movie for the first time last year, I was incredibly surprised by how depressing it was. Had always read/heard that it was the most uplifting Christmas movie of all time. However for about 95% of the time, its incredibly depressing with issues such as debt, suicide, etc in it with it only getting happy at the very end. To me it was too late. Thus I would agree with the article. Had more fun watching Home Alone than watching this movie.

  6. Yes, a good piece. I really like James Stewart in most anything, especially with Anthony Mann or Fatty Hitchcock but, in this film, he seems to be a shrill, tiresome, pain in the arse.

  7. Mirta Borders

    IAWL is the story of a community pillar who quietly organises a socialised credit system, destroyed by the forces of Capital, but saved by ordinary working people.

    Kids should be forced to watch it.

  8. Morrill

    It’s a Christmas film and a good one.

  9. Royce Staten

    It’s a Wonderful Life is the best Christmas film ever

    Miracle on 34th Street is the second best Christmas film ever

    What would be more interesting would be an article on underrated Christmas films such as The Bishop’s Wife, The Apartment and Rare Exports

  10. A great film of it’s time with a hopeful message that good will win out.

  11. Megan McKay

    I’m wondering what you think of George and Harry’s relationship in the film. It doesn’t seem like the things George does for his brother is out of obligation or because he is trapped. When George saves Harry after he falls through the ice it is a gut reaction. George hardly has time to think, “oh I guess I have to save him because he’s my brother and that’s my obligation.” Similarly when Harry returns from school with his surprise wife and job offer Harry says that he has not yet accepted the job from his father in law. Harry says he’s not going to leave George stuck at the Building & Loan. George has an opportunity to get out if he wants it, but is doesn’t take it. This is before George is tied down by wife and children, so what was keeping him trapped at that point?

    • Interesting point! I think that’s exactly that: George is driven by his guts to help people around which prevents him from pursuing his escapist dreams. And one could argue, although I am not sure I support this view, that saving Harry is the act of heroism that gave George the taste for adventure, but that may be pushing it too far. In terms of Harry’s job, although he says he hasn’t accepted yet, George knows he will never let his brother take his place because Harry is assured to have a bright future and George does not want to spoil that. He always puts others before himself which is why he does not have a way out even if Harry accepts the job – he is trapped within this ‘help he others’ natural feeling inside him (yet reinforced by family and social structures). So George’s relationship with his brother is not false or not genuine or not loving, but it is used here to witness again George’s powerlessness to think about himself first and pursue his dreams, entrapped within the fatherly duty to provide happiness to each member of his family, in whatever ways and even if it means sacrificing his desires.

  12. Sylvieg

    There’s nothing particularly bad about It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s just that idiot TV executives in the US decided to turn it into a Christmas cliche, like the Yule log.

  13. Shaquana

    The film is sentimental gush which makes it perfect for Xmas.

  14. GREAT article. It’s not really a Christmas film, it just happens to end at Christmas. What it is really about is a trapped man driven to the verge of suicide. People only seem to remember the final 10 minutes.

  15. I hate this movie and am absolutely not going to watch it. I would rather watch an Hellraiser marathon on Christmas.

  16. Arian Lai

    I’ve long felt that it is both overlong and overrated.

    Of course it does have classic moments, and one must, to a degree, judge it in context for the time.

    But the degree of love it engenders seems more steeped in its heritage than anything else, and is, I believe, more than it deserves if given an honest reappraisal in the cold light of the present day.

    I suspect I am in a minority.

  17. It’s a great film – not just for Christmas. An antidote to cynicism and hardened hearts.

  18. Personally I find it sappy and manipulative. There are many Christmas themed films which are much better than this one.

  19. Always hated this film, and James Stewart is so desperate for the love of his fans he reeks of the mundane.

  20. Shilo Pendleton

    The film’s title always put me off, but I tried to watch it recently to give it a chance, but I couldn’t make it past the beginning where the stars/angels are talking…I know that you have to put things in the context of their time, but I found it cheap, schmaltzy, and cringe-worthy.

  21. Was JS really an actor? he seemed to play the one part in every film..a mumbling bumbling distracted man.

  22. I’ve never liked It’s a Wonderful Life and have never quite understood why it’s so popular. I’m not a big fan of James Stewart so his presence as the star does nothing to endear the film to me.

  23. It’s a wonderful wonderful film .. the scenes between George and Mr Potter are fab…

  24. I LOVE this film- no it’s not sophisticated, but it’s as real to Christmas as a Christmas tree is to a fir tree. It’s truly Dickensian. Over done, overdecorated, over-everything just for the sake of it.

  25. I have always found this film to be tedious and depressing, and have always wondered why it is called It’s a Wonderful Life. The story begins with two lovely young people who one thinks will go out and do interesting things with their lives, but no; they just get married and become boring and middle-class.

  26. I can understand why the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” is not the favorite Christmas film for everyone.

  27. Mary Awad

    This was an extremely stressful movie. The whole time I felt so bad for George. I actually don’t think he had a wonderful life. He may have had a great life but it wasn’t the life he wanted, so does that really make it wonderful? If it takes a near-death experience to show you that you have a good life, that says something. I feel so bad for him, this movie is super cathartic. You just want things to work out and they never do. But in the end he’s happy and I guess that’s all that matters.

  28. Nicole

    What an intriguing and well formed article! First and foremost, thank you for that alone!

    Now: I must ask if you aren’t forcing a 1940’s American film through a 21st century American film filter? In the 1940’s, the family and the community WERE the epitome and highest standard of living. If you lost these, you indeed lost everything.

    Today, what with movements such as feminism and the like, this worldview has altered. Perhaps, when viewed through these lenses, It’s a Wonderful Life might portray the “prison” of the family circle. I personally disagree because I know the redemptive power of the family regardless of circumstances, but that is my personal opinion. I am also a huge proponent of historical consideration when critiquing, so I find it unfair to judge an almost 60-year-old movie by modern standards and expectations.

    Regardless, thanks for your thoughts! I quite enjoyed the article!

    • Thank you for the comment, I appreciate it! 🙂

      I think you are right, historical context is extremely important when evaluating a film although I think the issues addressed in this film are quite universal and can be adapted to many other periods. It is more about a psychological reflection on family ties and the individual.

      I agree with you, I may look at this film in the 21st century filter because I feel older films can always be reinterpreted and actually need to be re-evaluated through time as it is how we can perceive the evolution of thought, of moral values, of political views and of social matters from past to present days.

      But at the same time, these are reflections that Capra himself had at the time, and I suppose many have perceived the film in that negative way too (there are a lot of critical and scholar pieces about it that challenge the typical ‘oh this film is really a feel-good movie where everything gets better at the end because family is so uplifting’.

      I don’t know about family nowadays, and I do think family has an essential redemptive power for the individual but this is why it is also entrapping because we need that redemptive power, we need that comfort zone, what I meant by ‘savior’. So if you push the thinking further, you can find it entrapping too, not necessarily in a bad way, it might just be a fact. And although family was essential in the 1940s as people relied it on it so much (it still is in my opinion) it does not mean people were not feeling oppressed by these ties, just like George is in this film, or April is in Revolutionary Road, Emma is in Madame Bovary or Lester is in American Beauty…

  29. Robert Gilchrist

    Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” always struck me as being a sad occurrence, simply because there are instances that don’t feel very festive or happy. The ending certainly is, yet others seem to make you lament the tragic flaws in Bailey’s character. You bring up some interesting points here, and it might be interesting to take this idea and look more in depth at some other festive movies, such as an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”

  30. michael

    I hate over over sentimentalized, schmaltzy, light hearted films. This film is all those and it turns me into a crying , glad to be alive human being. I am a miserable cow usually but this makes me happy, happy happy and James Stewart I adore. Underrated and brilliant, brave (in real life and in film) and amiable. I only wrote to one ‘personality’ in my life and that was JS when I was reading a book about him? He had never seen it so I sent it to him. I hope his daughter still has it. It’s A Wonderful Film.

  31. Brianna

    Great movie, but quite depressing.

  32. While this a very thorough analysis, and I can definitely see where these themes may appear, I do not agree with the more grim comparisons you made. When analyzing this film, one must take into account the ideas surrounding family and domestice life when the movie was made (i.e. the late 1930’s, 38′ or 39′ I believe, *don’t quote me on that.) Family life was viewed as essential then, and served to portray the ‘ideal life’ every ‘American Dream’ spoke of. I have seen this movie more times than I can count, and I have questioned the darker aspects of George’s life almost every time, but in the end I believe its safe to say that Capra tried to produce a film that showed the value of self within simple circumstances, and the juxtaposition of George’s darker moments serve to emphasize the true happiness he finds in the town and dreams he thought he never wanted, yet it was his fate all along.
    Great discussion, thanks!

  33. Joseph Cernik

    I never can understand Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who essentially steals the money (OK he just picked it up)–somehow he gets away with it. All those people who owe George a favor come through in the end and Potter just slides under the radar. A good essay about a movie I might have seen now some thirty times.

  34. There is a whiff of ‘man being born free but everywhere in chains’ message.

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