On most “favorite Christmas movie” lists, It’s a Wonderful Life takes grand prize. Did you know that It’s a Wonderful Life even made it onto the Vatican’s list of 45 outstanding films during cinema’s first 100 years?
I didn’t grow up watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year on TV, as so many people have. Having seen it once or twice a long time ago, I thought it would be worth re-watching and perhaps mentioning during the Christmas Special on the Salt + Light Radio Hour. If you have listened to previous Christmas episodes of the Salt + Light Radio Hour, you might know that for the show’s host, Deacon Pedro Guevara-Mann, It’s a Wonderful Life is not just a great Christmas movie. For him, it’s the greatest movie of all time. So I sat down to watch it one more time.
Need I admit it? I was wrong. It’s a Wonderful Life is not just an “okay Christmas movie.” After really watching it, my appreciation for this movie was transformed! It moved up from being somewhere on my “pretty good movie” list to on my top 20 list. And it’s worth way more than a mention; I ended up spending our entire segment discussing it with Deacon Pedro.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film for family viewing, for spiritual renewal, and for cinema divina.
You can listen to the Five Spiritual Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life on the Salt + Light Radio Christmas Hour here, or browse below for a rambling version. And, if you are going to watch It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas, go ahead and download the free movie guide here on our Pauline website, www.BeMediaMindful.org ! Even just browsing the list of themes or questions might enrich the appreciation you or someone in your family might have for this wonderful film.
It’s a Wonderful Life available on DVD, streaming.
1946, 2 hrs 10 min
Dir. Frank Capra. Starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore.
In a nutshell: A great film in every way: artistically, dramatically, and narratively. It’s ironic (but in some ways appropriate to the message of the film) that the lack of appreciation for this movie partially destroyed director Frank Capra’s reputation as a filmmaker.
George Bailey is a good man who becomes desperate and thinks his life is worthless when he thinks he’s lost everything—through no fault of his own. In a miraculous answer to prayer, God sends an angel from heaven to show George how he wrong he is: that his life is indeed wonderful. The film is based on a solid short story (The Greatest Gift written by Philip Van Doren Stern—which you can find online), which is well-written but also gives the film scope to develop. The script itself is well-written, with the themes developing through the events, rather than the dialogue. (In other words, this is not a preachy movie. It is, like all great movies, a story.)
The characters are well-drawn—both as written and as acted. Jimmy Stewart’s George immediately draws us in—in part because of his goodness, but also because of his ordinariness and how he figures things out and then comes to making the right decision for that moment. George is also real in how he struggles when he is faced with sacrificing one of his dreams. (His habit of kicking whatever is nearby is a sure sign he is upset.) If you haven’t seen the film, stop here and continue reading after you’ve watched it. (Spoilers ahead!)
Windows to the Soul
So, why does It’s a Wonderful Life make such a great Christmas movie, in that it is entertaining, touching, and reminds us what Christmas is all about?
This is the thematic “lens” I chose for the movie guide: In self-sacrificial love, the Son of God comes to earth to save us, coming as an Infant born to a poor couple in a stable. George Bailey also has a mission to help others, but in the challenges and self-sacrifices he faces, he begins to doubt his personal vocation, his worth, and the meaning of his life.
Here are a few of my thoughts on the spiritual reminders or spiritual “windows” that It’s a Wonderful Life can help us to see more clearly. I hope that you add more of your favorite reasons for watching this amazing Christmas classic!
1. Image of manliness.
George Bailey offers us a noble image of manliness lived out in the vocation of husband and father—both physical and spiritual fatherhood. Interestingly enough, one of the meanings of the name “Bailey” is “protector” or “guardian.” Following in the footsteps of his father, George makes choices for his family but also for the well-being of the people of the entire community. He doesn’t just protect from evil but also provides for others through his self-sacrificing, kindness and generosity. For me, George’s portrayal of manhood as father and protector is noble—even Saint Joseph-like!
In his Theology of the Body, Pope Saint John Paul II presents us with an understanding of masculinity and femininity that is life-giving. In many ways, George and Mary are examples that powerfully resonate with what St. John Paul has to say.
A brief favorite scene: even as George’s life falls apart, he reveals just how tenderly he loves his daughter.
2. Power of temptation.
It’s easy to take good people for granted, or to put people on a pedestal. And when things are going well for us, we can take that for granted, too. The best people, even the most generous people, get tempted. George is heroically virtuous throughout most of his life, and yet, every time George chooses for his family instead of himself, or to provide for others over his dreams of travel and education, he really struggles with it. He honestly expresses his anger and resentment, even though he makes the unselfish choice. In the end, these good choices become a source for his temptation to discouragement—and he almost gives over to it.
Today, our culture values individualism and “following your dream” to the point where we do not always consider the needs of others. We don’t talk much about the common good, or the responsibility of the strong to pay attention to those who aren’t as strong.(Who of us would change our career so that the financial well-being of our community would be assured?) It’s so easy to take on an attitude of greed or acquisition. If we aren’t interested in material goods, we seek to acquire other things: experiences, reputation, number of “likes,” etc. It’s a Wonderful Life is a timely reminder of the virtue of unselfish love, and also of the importance of cultivating prayer and the values we cherish most, so that a moment of strong temptation won’t overpower us.
3. Spirit of Poverty
In his films, director Frank Capra often treats issues of social justice with a Catholic sensibility. (You can read more about Capra’s Catholic vision in his films in this well-researched article.) George Bailey repeatedly gives up his own dreams for his family and to manage the town’s Building and Loan Company founded by his father, to prevent the wealthy and greedy Mr. Potts taking over the town. With his talents, George makes much of the little resources he has, sometimes inspiring others, too, to help save the town and create simple but homey neighborhoods for immigrants struggling to establish themselves.
George doesn’t just give up a successful career or making money. He also gives up his dreams of education, travel, his shared dream of a honeymoon with his bride, his life-dream of fulfilling his potential in the way that he envisions. George’s sacrifice of these dreams is his greatest struggle, suffering, and, in the end, becomes his greatest temptation. Focused on what he doesn’t have and what he missed out on, he is no longer able to truly see or appreciate the best part of his life.
And yet, it is poverty of spirit that helps him discover the true treasures in his life. The spirit of poverty is emphasized with the quote under the photo of George’s father in the bank: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” And Harry, George’s brother for whom George has sacrificed so much, sums up at the end of the film, “A toast…to my big brother, George. The richest man in town!”
George doesn’t just give away money; he shares in the fate of others who are struggling financially; he allows their plight to affect his decisions of how he is going to live his life. He lives the spirit of poverty: a way that helps others and responds creatively to injustice.
4. Discouragement and 5. The power of prayer.
(I’m combining lesson 4 & 5 here, so that I can add one more at the end.)
In the “heavenly discussion” early in the film, the angels comment that discouragement is worse than illness. George’s extreme discouragement—it’s not too much to call it despair—is a “spiritual illness” that influences how he sees everything. Doing the right thing becomes “too hard;” a life that holds many sacrifices starts to seem meaningless. As the audience who have witnessed George’s life, we clearly see that these thoughts are temptations. One of the startling moments in the film for me was one I’d forgotten: when George thinks that God’s answer to his prayer is a punch! I was startled by it because I have often felt the same way. Out of fear and weariness, I give in to discouragement and can no longer see the good in my own life.
Desperate as he is, George prays for help. As a vibrant, essential part of his community, George’s crisis is recognized by others and they pray for him, too. The angel Clarence uses some Dickens-like creativity to help George overcome the power of this seductive temptation.
When Clarence claims to be the answer to George’s prayer, it came to me to wonder how often others are answers to my prayers. When we are truly open to doing God’s will, when we sincerely pray “Thy will be done” in the Our Father, then we too, can be God’s answer to a prayer. This movie is very Christian in how it likes to turn things “upside down”: God does answer prayers, but in his own time, in his own way. God sees differently than we do. The little, ordinary person—the little ones of the Gospel—the ones for whom, like Mary, their weakness is God’s strength—are not necessarily so little in God’s eyes. How can we be the answer to someone’s prayer today?
6. Meaning and Giftedness of Life
The meaning of life—that every life has meaning, and that every life is wonderful—is the theme of film. Clarence’s line sums it up well: “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” (Or, as Galadriel says in Lord of the Rings: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”)
What is impressive to me is that, despite his goodness, on some level George hasn’t understood this. Despite his kind generosity, his family, his achievements, and his great sacrifices for others, when George gradually starts to lose his faith, he discounts them all. It seems that he has been blind to the gift of his personal vocation and the true meaning of his life. Perhaps George never truly grasped the meaning of his life; perhaps he has always clung in some way to the dreams he thought he renounced. He simply dismisses or forgets the many lives he has saved or transformed, even discounting the friendships that mean the most to him.
Each of us carries a mental image of what success means, and we might, like George, feel like a failure if we don’t achieve that image. But is that “success” our vocation? Is it “success” that makes us truly happy?
For me, the question to ask myself at the end of this movie is, “What makes my life wonderful, here and now?” This is a great question to share on as a family after watching this film.
Recognizing the giftedness of our own lives doesn’t just make us grateful to be alive; it gifts us with joy and happiness, because we recognize how God is at work in our lives, how God continues to save us and love us, blessing us and gracing us.
You can download the free movie guide here, courtesy of the Pauline Center for Media Studies.
Themes found in It’s a Wonderful Life: Sacrificial love, life-giving love, meaning in life, personal vocation, manliness, spirit of poverty, Christmas, giftedness of life, family, salvation, gratitude, power of prayer, discouragement, perseverance, social justice.