and the forced cheer that has come to define our holiday seasons, there has evolved, over the past half-century, a genuine and thoroughly bottom-up cinematic Christmas tradition. Frank Capra’s movie It’s a Wonderful Life (which had its initial run in 1946 and 1947), is now one of the most beloved movies in American history. It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1990, and the American Film Institute ranked it number 11 on its list of the top 100 movies in the first 100 years of motion pictures.
Not many people know that during the initial run, the movie actually lost money—although this is partly because Capra went well over budget—and many perceived it as an unusually downbeat way of celebrating the Christmas season. After its fluke lapsing into the public domain in 1973, local TV channels were long able to run the movie for nothing, an arrangement they were obviously likely to take great advantage of. So for decades, the movie was able to creep into our collective consciousness as a “holiday classic” and, not unrelatedly, to become terribly familiar to a great many people (because it wasn't just one channel that played it every year; they all played it)—all without any kind of coordinated marketing campaign.
Now that NBC has bought up the rights, It’s a Wonderful Life will no longer appear on the low-budget local affiliates, and it has become yet another bit of “event programming” in the corporate holiday season. (By the same token, ABC claimed in advertisements that the new footage tacked on to the existing Peanuts Christmas special is “soon to become a holiday classic.” It’s bad enough to so transparently hanker after “classic” status, but surely to project it onto our future consciousness is a bit much.) There’s no doubt that the annual telecast has become a genuine Christmas Event: why, at Barnes & Noble this year you can even purchase a small hardback “impulse purchase” book relating the plot of the movie via text and stills, which, given the story’s near-perfect realization in the medium of film, seems entirely pointless.
Whether its classic status is a product of its mere ubiquity or its inherent quality is open to debate. However, I believe it to be an outstanding film, quite possibly underrated in terms of narrative skill. The message, the sentiment, and the schmaltz sometimes obscure the sheer quality of the direction and the performances. Regardless of what you think of the movie’s message, Capra was able to depict George Bailey’s entire life in a richly populated, thoroughly fleshed-out, thoroughly “lived-in” setting, Bedford Falls—no mean feat.
There may be yet another factor that has helped the movie become so firmly lodged in our collective Christmas consciousness, and that is the movie’s close ties to what is perhaps the only other lengthy Christmas narrative that outstrips it in popularity, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The similarities and relationship between the two stories are at once quite close and far from straightforward. It’s not an adaptation of Dickens, it’s not a sequel, nor is it the same plot dressed up in American duds. It’s a very different story that, consciously or unconsciously, echoes the Dickens story in many places. You might call it a “crypto” or “stealth” adaptation, a reworking of the Scrooge tale that nevertheless deserves to be called an original story.
What’s interesting is that It’s a Wonderful Life is based on a literary work, one that bears much less relation to A Christmas Carol , so it’s worth taking a moment to look at the authorship of the film. The screenwriters listed in the credits are Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, with “additional scenes” by Jo Swerling. Capra also received a writing credit for It’s a Wonderful Life , though it’s difficult to know from this distance whether this is in fact a nod to his role as director. The movie is based on a short story called “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, which in 1943 was privately distributed to friends as a kind of Christmas card.
Somehow the story came to the attention of Capra, who immediately saw great possibilities for it. In his 1971 autobiography The Name Above the Title, Capra wrote: “It was the story I had been looking for all my life! Small town. A man, a good man, ambitious. But so busy helping others, life seemed to pass him by. Despondent. He wishes he'd never been born. He gets his wish. Through the eyes of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he never been born. Wow! What an idea.”
While a competent story, “The Greatest Gift” contains the merest kernel for the narrative depicted in the movie. Reading it drives home the exemplary job Capra did in adapting a somewhat lifeless story into a transcendent classic. It also makes manifest the brilliance of Jimmy Stewart’s performance, as well as that of Henry Travers in the role of the angel. “The Greatest Gift” essentially covers the Clarence section: a nameless angel, in the form of a brush salesman, intervenes to prevent “George Pratt” from committing suicide. Many of the primary incidents in the movie are in fact contained in the story, including the brother’s drowning, the demise of the bank, and the changed circumstances of his wife’s marital situation (she doesn't become a spinster but ends up marrying George’s cranky and unreliable partner). However, note the absence of Mr. Potter, a crucial addition to the film that brings the narrative much closer to that of A Christmas Carol.
As for the Dickens connection, let’s consider first the similarities between It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, again keeping in mind that the stories are far from identical. Both stories are set on Christmas Eve, although A Christmas Carol stretches into Christmas Day as well. Both are about men of business, and the world of finance plays a significant role in both stories. Both stories involve a supernatural intervention into the life of one man, who is given a chance to witness an alternate reality of his own life, an event that then causes him to re-evaluate his life and future behavior. Both stories demonstrate a tension between Christmas/Christian charity and unchecked capitalism, something that has been a staple of the Christian tradition ever since Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple. Both stories use a supernatural non-Christian framework (Conversing galaxies? the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?) to drive home an essentially Christian message. Both stories ask the question, How do our choices affect the way we end up? and have as a moral, Yes, you and I do make a difference in the world.
However, the George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life and the Ebenezer Scrooge of A Christmas Carol do not match up well at all. After all, Bailey is a positive and admirable figure for almost all of It’s a Wonderful Life . He elicits our sympathy, not our derision. Fortunately, the writers of It’s a Wonderful Life inserted a character to assume the negative side of Scrooge—Potter, who is played to hatable perfection by Lionel Barrymore. In fact, the writers overdo it—Potter is far blacker and more malignant than Scrooge could ever hope to be. This is because in A Christmas Carol, there are essentially three Scrooges—the young, idealistic Scrooge encountered during the visitation of the Ghost of Christmas Past, the grumpy Scrooge of Christmas Eve, and the joyous, childlike Scrooge of Christmas Day. Stewart plays the first and third incarnations of Scrooge, the idealistic businessman and the joyous goofball, while Potter gets the chiseling, greedy Scrooge all to himself. Potter is more evil than Scrooge could ever be because Potter is free from the burden of “containing” the positive side of Scrooge.
In a sense, It’s a Wonderful Life is a kind of inversion of A Christmas Carol. The point of view of A Christmas Carol is solidly terrestrial, totally with Scrooge—it’s the ghosts that intrude on his night. It’s a Wonderful Life may seem to belong to Bailey, but the framing device gives the angels, specifically Clarence, the governing point of view. (Of the “three spirits” in A Christmas Carol , Clarence most resembles the Ghost of Christmas Past, whom Dickens describes as “a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man.” We are also told that the Ghost of Christmas Past wears a tunic, not a bad approximation of Clarence’s anachronistic outfit.) The timelines, however, are very similar indeed—both present the protagonist’s youth and young adulthood in episodic flashbacks, and then show a “not-real” version of later life towards the end, followed by an epiphany. The two stories are most similar at the point at which the “unreal” future is presented, and thereafter. Scrooge gets to see not only his past life with the eyes of his older self, but also his projected future; in It’s a Wonderful Life, we get to see these “idealistic Scrooge” scenes in Bailey’s stead. And the glee that Bailey and Scrooge experience upon being given a second chance—essentially identical.
Some of the parallels are fanciful, some quite close. Scrooge has his famous mantra of contempt, “Bah! Humbug!”—Capra pointedly has Potter say, “Sentimental hogwash!” which is about as close as you can come to the same sentiment without giving the entire game away. The opening of It’s a Wonderful Life , in which we hear various citizens of Bedford Falls praying for George Bailey, is somewhat similar to the scene in which Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present and overhears both Bob Cratchit and his nephew refer to him with kindness. It could even be argued that the spectral door-knocker Scrooge encounters, with his dead partner Marley’s face hovering over it, finds its counterpart in the loose knob at the end of Bailey’s banister. (After he learns to value his life again, Bailey kisses it.) Both stories seek to enunciate an alternative definition of wealth, one based on fulfillment rather than material concerns. Shown himself as a young man attending a party thrown by his old boss Fezziwig, old Scrooge thinks admiringly on that power to bestow pleasure: “The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” Meanwhile, Bailey insists to Potter that his father “died a much richer man than you'll ever be!” And consider the following passage:
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I'm very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
Here’s Capra’s American version of the same mindset, with George’s father playing the role of the gentlemen petitioning for alms:
Potter: Have you put any real pressure on those people of yours to pay those mortgages?
Bailey: Times are bad, Mr. Potter. A lot of these people are out of work.
Potter: Then foreclose!
Bailey: I can't do that. These families have children.
Potter: They're not my children.
Bailey: But they're somebody’s children.
Potter: Are you running a business or a charity ward?
Bailey: Well, all right . . .
Potter (interrupting): Not with my money!
And most importantly, the scene in which George Bailey confronts the grave of his brother quite deliberately evokes the scene in A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge confronts his own tombstone.
Interestingly, in It’s a Wonderful Life Potter, the negative aspect Scrooge, doesn't have anything to do with Christmas at all, other than pocketing Uncle Billy’s money. (In a brilliant 1986 sketch, Saturday Night Live imagined a “lost” ending to the movie in which the theft is discovered, whereupon the merry revelers at George’s house form a lynch mob and beat Potter to death, thus quite subverting the feel-good message of the movie.) While it’s curious that Potter would vanish during the Christmas Eve section, the part in which the grumpy Scrooge has the most action, it isn't so hard to understand once you remember that It’s a Wonderful Life is precisely a movie about a man who sorely needs reminding that he never did become Scrooge—in other words, a positive recasting of the same situation.
What of Bailey’s relationship to the nasty Scrooge? For if Bailey is basically playing the “good” Scrooge, it might after all follow that he would become the grumpy, lonely Scrooge as well. Certainly It’s a Wonderful Life does not disregard this possibility, in fact it very consciously contains a theme of Bailey’s temptation and resistance . Bailey is more like the elder Scrooge as a child and young man than he is as an adult—recall that early on, Bailey twice wishes for “a million dollars” at the cigar lighter at the soda fountain, a wish that would certainly warm the heart of old Scrooge. If Scrooge is the man who gained money and ended up alone, then Bailey is the man who forsook money and found himself with a family. But Bailey grows into his homespun ideals unwillingly—at first he sees his father’s lot at the Building & Loan as working in “a shabby little office,” constantly dealing with “nickels and dimes.” After he assumes his father’s role, Potter tries to buy him out, offering a $20,000 per year salary over three years to come work for him. Bailey is quite eager to accept—until he feels physical revulsion in the act of shaking Potter’s clammy hand.
So what does it all mean? Dickens taps into the fear of living an unloved life; Capra into the fear of living a meaningless life. For Scrooge, at least initially, the bad outcome is to end up alone; what Bailey doesn't want to be is small . You could say that this is the American version of Scrooge’s fear—after all, an American who does even virtuous things on a modest scale risks being labeled a failure. When Bailey is courting Mary, his future wife, on the sidewalk in too garrulous a manner, an irritated neighbor shouts at Bailey from his porch that he should stop yakking and kiss her already, adding: “Youth is wasted on the wrong people!”
There’s something in this sentence that points to a more underlying commonality between the two stories. In a sense, that’s precisely what Scrooge and Bailey are: people on whom youth has been wasted, not that anybody else is any different. If that weren't the case, what would be the point of these supernatural exercises anyway? Clarence and Dickens’s three spirits seek to rejuvenate their respective charges, to show them the measure of their experiences with the eyes of youth. The curse of youth is, perhaps, that one fails to see the limitations of reputation as opposed to the value of virtue or pleasure. The curse of age is that one becomes too inured to the unjustness of life and to the force of one’s own weaknesses. As we are all trapped in the inexorable one-way conveyor belt of time, it takes tremendous force of character to overcome these curses. The miracle that Scrooge and Bailey are both given is permission to escape time’s conveyor belt for a few hours. And by simultaneously allowing the viewer or reader this vicarious release from time, we reward both stories with the status of timeless classics.