ITS A WONDERFUL LIFE
It's a Wonderful Life was one of numerous angelic intervention fantasies that were very popular during the 1940s. The Wartime era was filled with these, including the likes of Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), A Guy Named Joe (1943), Angel On My Shoulder (1946), A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (1946), The Bishops Wife (1947), Heaven Only Knows/Montana Mike (1947) and Angels in the Outfield (1951), among others. There is the clear sense that many of these were reaching out to offer a gently soothing comfort to those who had been devastated by Wartime losses. Beneath these films lies the recurrent belief that a destiny, a purposefulness and goodness underlies all things and that the afterlife is a place of untroubled comfort.
It's a Wonderful Lifes popularity lies in that it is very much an Every (Middle-Class) Man Fantasy. The script throws cruel blows of fate at James Stewart he loses his hearing to save his brother from drowning, he has to sacrifice going to college, his honeymoon, even sell his life insurance policy for others and casts his longsuffering with an incredibly sentimental nobility. It is almost like the story of the Biblical Job of a man who struggles to retain faith in the face of the cruelties thrown upon him. Perhaps the story of Job crossbred with Charles Dickenss A Christmas Carol (1843) in which an angelic envoy comes at Christmas-time to show a man various alternate life pathways, although the intent here is not to show the way to repentance but rather longsuffering endurance and the decency of smalltown life. It is pious nonsense but undeniably well told. It is hard not to be affected by the misfortunes that befall James Stewart, even at the same time as one is aware that the film is laying them on with a trowel.
The films appeal often lies in director Frank Capras seesawing between bittersweet reality and a bubbly light-heartedness. There are considerable nonsensical charms to the film like the scene where James Stewart and Donna Reed fight their mutual desire during a phone call, or the scene entering the derelict house where rain spilled from Stewarts hat brim into an outstretched hand serves as a tip and a chicken is turned on a spit by a rope around a record turntable. The main thrust of the story takes a long time to get to but is an effective use of the alternate world theme as horror story. The ending is so simplistic in its feelgood sentimentality that it defies the bounds of belief but then one supposes that it holds exactly the kind of notion, that noble sacrifice will eventually be repaid and all will work out, that appealed to the audience of the day.
It's a Wonderful Life has proven surprisingly popular and is one of those that can legitimately be called an American classic. The basic concept was directly copied in other films, most notably Mr Destiny (1990), Richie Richs Christmas Wish (1998), The Family Man (2000), Its a Very Muppet Christmas Movie (2002), You Wish! (2003) and Shrek Forever After (2010), wherein underachievers and the dissatisfied are shown alternate paths their life may have taken. It Happened One Christmas (1977) was a disappointing remake, which interestingly changed the sexes, casting the James Stewart character with Marlo Thomas and with Cloris Leachman as Clara/Clarence, while Orson Welles proved the show-stealer as Potter. The tv movie Clarence (1990) was a sequel that continued the adventures of the guardian angel Clarence, now played by Robert Carradine.
Frank Capras other films of genre interest are Lost Horizon (1937), concerning the discovery of a lost Himalayan valley where an untroubled life is able to prolong aging; and the Grand Guignol comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).