It’s A Wonderful Life
To know this movie, is to know its creator, Frank Capra.
Having just returned from World War II, Colonel Frank Capra, one of Hollywood's foremost directors, was alarmed by the increasingly apathetic attitudes toward God, freedom, and democracy that he witnessed in films and books. Coming to Hollywood to open his own studio-- Liberty Pictures, Capra determined to use the art of cinema to remind audiences of the real purpose of life.
In his own biography Capra describes the vision for his new company as follows:
I will deal with the little man's doubts, his curses, his loss of faith in himself, in his neighbor, in his God. And I will show the overcoming of doubts, the courageous renewal of faith, and the final conviction that of himself he can and must survive and remain free... And I will remind the little man that his mission on earth is to advance spiritually, that to surrender his free spirit to Big Brother's concentration camp is a step backward to the jungle.
And finally, my films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, and that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.
With these high ideals, Capra set out to find the perfect first project. What captured his imagination was The Greatest Gift, a short story originally penned as a Christmas card insert, which RKO had bought the rights to. But studio chief Charlie Koerner was unable to turn it into a workable idea, so he handed it over to Capra for fifty thousand dollars.
With his future on the line, his goals publicly announced, and his respite from film making adding pressure, Capra and two other writers worked on the script. Asking his longtime acquaintance Jimmy Stewart (another nervous returned serviceman) to play the leading man turned out to be one of the best decisions of his career.
Typical of so many classic films, It's A Wonderful Life, which was never intended to be a Christmas movie, fell short of outstanding at the box office. Yet somehow, this movie about a good man (George Bailey, played by Stewart) who finds himself painted into a corner by the greedy and bitter Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and ultimately wishing he had never been born, has found a place in even the most jaded hearts of our society.
What makes it such an endearing movie? Perhaps it is watching George Bailey grow up, agonizing with him when his slapped deaf ear starts to bleed, sympathizing with his desire to see the world, appreciating the great personal sacrifices he makes for those he loves, chuckling over his romantic endeavors, admiring his commitment to values, or understanding the despair that has him contemplating suicide. Or maybe it's because the mild objectionable content (some drunkenness, brawling, and an allusion to prostitution), doesn't detract from the story's happy ending.
But most likely it's because It's A Wonderful Life addresses the yearning each of us has to leave a legacy--to feel that somehow our existence matters. And it reminds us that the smallest contributions may be the most significant ones of all.
Personally, I believe that Frank Capra accomplished exactly what he set out to do, and the world is a better place because of his contribution.