It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is a perennial Christmas classic, treasured by critics and audiences alike for its heartfelt, emotional story and inspiring message. However, cozy memories of the movie often fail to remember that it is actually a fairly uncompromising work that unflinchingly depicts the pain and suffering people must endure to truly appreciate life and love. While it has gone on to become a timeless, endlessly relatable classic, It's a Wonderful Life is also very much a product of its specific moment in history.
It's a Wonderful Life is an adaptation of Philip Van Doren Stern's 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift," which tells the story of a suicidal man who is visited by an angel who shows him what his world would look like if he had never been born and, in the process, reveals the positive impact the man has had on the world around him. The film builds upon this very basic narrative by introducing the challenges that have driven protagonist George Bailey (James Stewart) to despair, financial struggles and the malicious Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a rich and arrogant banker who is blinded by greed and willing to ruin people like George for his own benefit.
When examining the way It's a Wonderful Life reflects the immediate post-war years, we must consider the official release date – December 20, 1946, only the second Christmas after the end of World War II. At that time, the entire world was in the process of reconstruction after years of unrelenting conflict and destruction. As people returned to stability after a period full of unspeakable tragedies on a global scale, the film provided a cinematic illustration of the goodness that humanity can still possess, even when the outlook is grim.
The film's optimism is not come by lightly but hard-earned through a process of suffering and learning. The first half of the film follows George from childhood through to adulthood, gradually revealing the ways in which bad things consistently happen to him in spite - and even because - of the fact that he always attempts to be a good man and sacrifices himself for others. The hardships pile up and pile up: when he saves his younger brother from drowning as a child, he loses his hearing in one ear; he marries the woman he loves and always strives to be a good husband and father, but the pressures of domestic life are often overwhelming; he does everything in his power to be financially responsible, but he is still threatened by financial ruin. While George feels helpless and that his actions are meaningless despite his constant attempts to do good, the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) presents an alternate reality that reveals just how enormous and positive George's impact on the world around him has been. In this version of events, his brother Harry has drowned, his father’s business has failed, his Uncle Billy has been institutionalized, and his wife Mary is an unmarried librarian. In addition to the differences shown in his immediate family, in this version of reality Bedford Falls is dreary, soulless Pottersville, revealing George's deeply positive influence upon the entire town throughout his life.
Like George, those who lived through World War II experienced unrelenting suffering due to no fault of their own, subject to the caprices of governments conflicts, chance and fate. Facing the reality of the millions of deaths, injuries, losses of homes and possessions, and the horrors humans could inflict on one another, those who survived World War II could be tempted to give in to despair. However, It's a Wonderful Life offered a glimmer of hope to audiences of the era - as senseless and fruitless as one's attempts at goodness might seem in a hostile world, these positive contributions are never meaningless.
While the film speaks specifically to the concerns, hopes and fears of an audience still shaken by the trauma of war, it continues to speak to generations of moviegoers with its poignant message of finding meaning, love and even happiness in the darkest circumstances.