In Dancing In the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression — a book I enjoyed and learned from despite Mark Steyn’s (accurately) devastating review in Commentary upon its publication — Morris Dickstein speaks up on behalf of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. He writes that the movie has “a large cult following that finds it a heartwarming work, the epitome of the Christmas spirit, while others see it as sentimental.” Dickstein digs below the surface of the film to weigh the merits:
In fact, few films are more genuinely moving. I can’t think of another that brings me so readily to tears, not from its uplifting ending but from the purgatorial ordeal that precedes it. When I first wrote about Capra in the late 1970s, his reputation remained low, mainly because the dark side of his work had scarcely been acknowledged. But It’s a Wonderful Life has many of the same dark elements as Meet John Doe, especially in scenes that are literally dark and somber in their lighting. This is Capra’s most personal film, and the psychological ordeal of George Bailey, as played by Jimmy Stewart, summarizes the fears and anxieties that had surfaced in twenty years of Capra’s spunky and effervescent filmmaking — an undertone of stress and insecurity that helped give his fairy tales their believable human solidarity.
George Bailey’s life epitomizes the ethic of altruism and benevolence that Capra had been preaching but also questioning…At every stage George sacrifices his own wishes to the needs of others, as his selfless father had done before him….He doesn’t leave town, doesn’t go to college, can’t go to war, and can’t even go off for his own honeymoon trip….To be purged of his suicidal wishes, the character is temporarily robbed of all identity, so that even his nearest and dearest fail to know him. It’s a powerful fantasy: not to be recognized by your own mother, to find you wife has never been married but become a spinster, to stumble on the grave of the brother whose life you thought you saved. Never to have lived: in this grim vision Capra’s heroes face up to the gloomy underside of their own blank anonymity. Like the tragedy, the fairy tale becomes a catharsis of pity and terror.
Stella Morabito revisits It’s a Wonderful Life and gives it a straightforward reading that also helps take us to the heart of the film:
As corny as it may seem to moderns, the movie’s message is laden with more truth than can be handled by those who obsess over “income inequality.” To say “the rich get richer” or “the poor get poorer” is perhaps as true as saying “the smart get smarter” or “the happy get happier.” There are plenty of variations on this, such as “the healthy get healthier,” “the sick get sicker,” “the fit get fitter,” “the lazy get lazier.” There’s something analogous to a law of physics here. Practices and habits tend to build on themselves, and good ones pay dividends, especially if you live in a free society that doesn’t get in the way of you cultivating good habits. Or of cultivating voluntary associations and friendships through trust.
The term “inequality” requires we label all people based on what they have. It gets in the way of seeing people as they are. George always strived to see the whole person. Yet he didn’t recognize the positive impact this had on the lives of others. George had even succumbed to the false idea that his life was a “failure” because he hadn’t achieved success as superficially assured by some in society – wealth and adventure.
So Clarence takes George on a little tour of a different Bedford Falls – one in which George Bailey had never existed. In it George sees friends and acquaintances devoid of the warmth he brought to their lives or without the advantage of his counsel, aid, and presence. He saw spite and nastiness coming from his old pal Nick. He saw the townspeople reject and degrade his old boss, the druggist Mr. Gower, whom George had saved from ruin. He saw great sorrow, confusion, corruption, loneliness.
When George could stand it no more, he prayed to live again. And he did.
Whole thing here.