In Prelude to War, Frank Capra’s 1942 propaganda documentary meant to encourage American involvement in World War II, the narrator at one point asks, “Just what was it made us change our way of living overnight?” The film, which co -won Best Documentary at the 1943 Oscars, has a simple answer: Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Britain, and Nazi aggression overall.
But the question is one that Capra considered his entire career. His movies often revolved around an Everyman who undergoes a complete change in lifestyle overnight, altering the trajectory of not just his own life but also those around him. In 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, an Everyman suddenly inherits $20 million. In 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, an Everyman suddenly becomes a senator.
And in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this month, an Everyman suddenly sees what his town would be like without him. Except this time, his benefactor isn’t a dead relative or a governor. It’s an angel.
World War II would bifurcate Capra’s career into two parts. The first was one of astonishing success — immigrating from Italy at age five, rising through the ranks of silent movies as a writer, fully embracing the technical revolutions of talkies, and finding unprecedented critical success in the 1930s.
In 1934, It Happened One Night became the first movie to sweep the five big awards at the Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. In addition to the Best Documentary win for Prelude to War, Capra won Best Director three times.
Some of these movies had staying power. But none approach the roaring popularity of It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie which began the post-War segment of Capra’s career, one where critics and audiences now rejected him more often than not. After the bitter realities of the WWII, audiences preferred movies concerning espionage and deceit, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious or Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. When they wanted sentimentality, they preferred it to be as racist as possible, with the top-grossing movie of the year being Disney’s Song of the South.
So why did Wonderful Life, a movie that wasn’t beloved by audiences and critics of the time, and isn’t especially Christmas-centric, become a Christmas classic decades later? One reason lies in its accidental entry into the public domain, but that only partially explains things. Loads of Christmas content comes out each and every year. Why this?
The answer might be that audiences weren’t quite ready for Capra’s vision. Mixing a romanticized collectivism with the power of the individual, Wonderful Life did what immigrants in movies did throughout the history of the industry: create the American Dream.
Before even meeting George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), Capra introduces the audience to two power structures: the community of Bedford Falls, which is praying for George, and the light bureaucracy of Heaven, where “Joseph” speaks to an unnamed God about all the prayers coming in for George. They both agree George needs help, as it’s his “crucial night,” but Joseph is skeptical because the assigned helper, Clarence (Henry Travers), “has the IQ of a rabbit.”
The unnamed higher power chuckles in knowing agreement, but calls for Clarence anyway, who rushes on screen in the form of a star that brightens when he talks. Before showing a burgeoning community in Bailey Park, and toward the end, a den of inequity and sin in the movie’s George-less alternate universe of Pottersville, Capra offers up a potent visual metaphor: we are all small cogs in the Universe, glowing at the right opportunity.
And then Capra shows what those right opportunities can do, offering a highlight reel of George’s life. Before meeting the character, the audience sees that he is intrinsically brave and good. He rescues his brother from freezing water at the expense of his hearing. Later, he saves Mr. Gowers the pharmacist from accidentally poisoning a child. When George’s uncle, Billy (Thomas Mitchell), accidentally gives a crucial deposit of $8,000 to the vile and rich banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), it’s George’s family that is failing him. And when George can’t retrieve the money, it’s his family who he takes his anger out on, cruelly chastising them amidst the noise of holiday cheer. Capra isn’t particularly concerned with Potter’s theft, but rather how collectives like families and communities react to misfortune.
But even when individuals fail their collective, they can still redeem themselves. Perhaps this is why an FBI agent at the time thought It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie directed by a Republican who had recently made several propaganda films for the Army, was rife with Communist influence.
Just as Mr. Smith wasn’t afraid to show corruption as long as it was beaten down by the spirit of America, Wonderful Life isn’t afraid to show moments when people and communities fail. But, as we always hope they will, they get back up again. Even if life in Pottersville seems exciting, Capra says, it can’t offer the strength of community spirit.
There were another group of immigrants in the movie industry with a similar romanticism: Jews. As Neal Gabler notes in An Empire of Their Own, a book about Jews and the formation of the movie industry, “they would fabricate their empire in the image of America … They would create its values and myths, its traditions and archetypes.”
Likewise, with his string of movies depicting his version of America, Capra created values and myths, traditions and archetypes. And by the time everyone is singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s hard not to join in, not matter who you are or what you celebrate.