Advent calendars; trees bedecked in baubles and tinsel; It’s A Wonderful Life: all are intrinsically woven into the fabric of Christmas tradition and, for many, it’s difficult to envisage Christmas without any of these essential ingredients.
Released in 1946, it was initially considered a commercial failure, a label that is somewhat hard to believe for those of us who have grown up with its populist appeal and ubiquitous presence on Christmas TV.
Year after year, people flock to cinemas to see the beloved classic – watching as a man’s life is unfolded in all its disappointments and pleasures, and learning the impact that this one man has had on those around him. World War II has just finished and James Stewart is still stuck in the hometown from which he has long craved an escape – disaster strikes on Christmas Eve and he is left wondering how much he has really accomplished in his life. As it turns out, the answer is: really quite a lot.
Sentimental, yes, but not overbearingly so: the film firmly remains on the right side of heart-warming. Intermittent moments of wit and ironic humour, the film’s very human theme of dealing with futile hopes and collapsed ambitions, and characters that are straight out of a slapstick comedy, all prevent the film from falling into melodramatic strains.
Although the character of Potter can seem like a pantomime villain at times and the timing of events verges on the improbable, It’s a Wonderful Life is enduringly popular for a reason: its simplistic message of goodwill resonates with the audience. The scene in which Donna Reed crafts a makeshift honeymoon in a crumbling house surely must be one of the most romantic in cinematic history, and the end of the film, as their house is teeming with good-natured and generous neighbours, is brimming with the quintessential spirit of Christmas.
Encompassing the traditional magic of Christmas and eradicating the consumerism that has since come to characterise the day, there’s something quite evocative about going to the cinema specifically to watch a Christmas classic and appreciate a film that has so long captured the imagination of the world.