When Frank Capra returned to Hollywood after coordinating the Why We Fight propaganda series during the war, he resumed the total artistic control over his films for which he had fought during the 1930s. It's a Wonderful Life was made for Liberty Films, the production company organized by Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler and Sam Briskin. The film exemplifies the concept of the independent producer-director, and Capra has called it his favorite film. In the year of its release its importance was overshadowed by Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (not made for Liberty Films), but it has since gone on to be one of the most frequently revived of Capra's works.
The impetus and structure of It's a Wonderful Life recall the familiar model of Capra's pre-war successes. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. In each of these films, the hero represents a civic ideal and is opposed by the forces of corruption. His identity, at some point misperceived, is finally acclaimed by the community at large. The pattern receives perhaps its darkest treatment in It's a Wonderful Life. The film's conventions and dramatic conceits are misleading. An idyllic representation of small-town America, a guardian angel named Clarence and a Christmas Eve apotheosis seem to justify the film's perennial screenings during the holiday season. These are the signs of the ingenuous optimism for which Capra is so often reproached. Yet they function in the same way "happy endings" do in Moliere, where the artifice of perfect resolution is in ironic disproportion to the realities of human nature at the core of the plays.
George Bailey is presumably living the "wonderful life" of the title. Having abandoned his ambition to become an architect in order to run a building- and loan-association, and facing arrest for a discrepancy in the books, George is on the verge of suicide. His guardian angel offers him the chance to find out what would have happened had he not been born. George then sees the town as a nightmarish vision of corruption. No one knows him. Even his mother, a benevolent image through the rest of the film, appears hard-bitten and cruel, and refuses to recognize him in a scene that dramatizes a primal identity crisis. George does regain his identity and is euphorically acknowledged by everyone. But this joyous finale caps a film that so often represents pain and despair – from a slap that draws blood from young George's ear, to a marriage proposal expressed in utter frustration, to the images (both inside and outside the fantasy section of the film) of George in a rage, furious with himself and with those he loves. Here, as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Stewart embodies the hysterical energy of Capra's quintessential American hero, thereby conveying, along with the director, the ambiguities of the American dream along with its promises.
Release Date: 1946
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame, H. B. Warner, Ward Bond, Frank Faylan, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Frank Hagney, Sheldon Leonard, and Alfalfa Switzer
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Frank Capra with additional scenes by Jo Swerling
Source Citation: Affron, Charles. "It's a Wonderful Life." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 575-578.