It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

This has become an essential part of Christmas movie watching in the past four decades. For many years it was the film I watched on the afternoon of Christmas Eve while I wrapped gifts to put under the tree, but recently we have saved it to savor as our Christmas cinema list draws to a close. The story of George Bailey’s redemptive crisis on Christmas Eve blends elements of many different films and stories (Meet John Doe, Good Sam, The Bishop’s Wife, and A Christmas Carol) but Frank Capra’s direction and the sterling performances by James Stewart and a wide range of marvelous character actors makes this an always wonderful film that always reveals new riches of meaning on each viewing.


George Bailey contemplates suicide believing that his life has been a failure and that everyone would have been better off had he never been born. His guardian angel shows him the difference his life has made for his family, friends and town, and George realizes that instead of a failure he has lived a wonderful life.


The only New York connection is referential: several friends mention working briefly in New York City before returning to Bedford Falls.


The story is set on Christmas Eve, and there is the best and most meaningful snow scene in all of our Christmas movies.


There are so many. Our favorites are Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy) and Beulah Bondi (Ma Bailey). Surprisingly, Mitchell does not appear in any other film on our Christmas watch list, though he has wonderful roles in many Capra films, such as Lost Horizon and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Beulah Bondi also plays the mother in Remember the Night, another of our Christmas favorites.


I first discovered this movie while in college, just a few years before it became a ubiquitous movie shown repeatedly on TV in the 1970s when the copyright lapsed and the film briefly entered the public domain. While at the University of Virginia in 1974, I had the opportunity to meet Frank Capra, who was a special guest lecturer there. I attended a reception for him in the Edgar Allen Poe room on the Lawn and asked Mr. Capra how he got such wonderfully large snowflakes in the bridge scene: a combination of Ivory Snow detergent and Kellogg’s Cornflakes.