It’s a Christmas classic, perhaps the original Christmas classic — but its original gave few hints about the nature of It’s A Wonderful Life. Those who watched this giant of American cinema over the past week will recognize the scenes in its original theatrical trailer, but not the movie the subtitles and narrator promise:
After all, on his way to the film’s happy ending, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey has to traverse some pretty dark terrain. It’s a Wonderful Life was never the lighthearted romp its theatrical trailer implied—old Hollywood glitz aside, it’s a powerful, haunting movie about the nightmarish reality of people who are near suicide.
Cinefamily’s trailer, first produced last year, may be harder to take, but it’s much more moving than the original. And for anyone who hasn’t seen the flick, it says clearly why they should.
Oh, come on … who hasn’t seen this film already? Berman’s right about the (relatively) new trailer, though. Except for an annoying organ undertone throughout, this film captures much more accurately the tone of It’s a Wonderful Life and the crisis of its protagonist, George Bailey. The original trailer made it look like a typical silly rom-com of its era and gave almost no hint of the darkness brought so acutely to the screen by James Stewart. In other words, the original trailer sold both itself and its audience short.
Perhaps its commercial disappointment on first release might have had something to do with the poor marketing that the original trailer represents. RKO lost over a half-million dollars on the film on box office of $3.3 million — roughly equivalent to $35.1 million today and a $5.6 million loss. It didn’t get very good reviews at the time, although some saw what would make it into a classic later. It took television to change the critical and commercial value of a film that not even Frank Capra considered to be a Christmas movie, at least not in its initial incarnation.
And actually, I agree. I wrote about this almost thirteen years ago in my pre-blogging days when I wrote movie reviews for fun at IMDB, one of my favorite websites. The writing is a little rough, but the point comes across that It’s A Wonderful Life is more of an Easter film than a Christmas movie:
George, having had to put his own dreams on hold or away on at least three separate occasions now, prospers modestly and builds a family, and his disappointment stays below the surface until disaster strikes. His unreliable Uncle Billy (Capra regular Thomas Mitchell) unknowingly hands Potter the bank deposit, literally putting the means for George’s destruction in Potter’s hands. Potter informs the bank examiner and the DA about the $8000 shortage at the S&L, and George faces ruin and prison for embezzlement. He tries asking Potter for help — crawls for it, actually — and Potter gleefully refuses. George, while holding onto his low-equity whole-life policy, realizes that the policies make him worth more dead than alive and plans to commit suicide. That’s when an angel steps in and shows George what his world would have been like had he never been born.
Some people think that George is owed something monetary by the townspeople, but actually George has prospered modestly by helping them prosper. In terms of money, neither really owe each other anything. In terms of friendship, George has been what Potter is financially — as rich a man as any other. But George, in his plight, doesn’t see this. All he sees is financial, legal, and social ruin because he’s looking through Potter’s eyes; Potter has succeeded (temporarily) in ruining him spiritually. He even turns into a low-rent Potter on his initial return home, barking at his kids and his wife, smashing things, yelling at the schoolteacher, before righting himself somewhat and trying to apologize to his terrified family. He leaves for a bar, where his friends try to find out what’s wrong, and he sends up a desperate prayer to God for help in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever watched. (And then he gets punched in the nose by the husband of the schoolteacher, in one of the most wry moments ever on screen.)
The look at what Bedford Falls becomes without ever having a George Bailey isn’t as important, although Potterville certainly is the inspiration for Back to the Future Part II’s alternate Biff-run Hill Valley. George comes back to reality with his soul and his faith restored, running through the restored Bedford Falls with joy while heading towards certain ruin. His faith leads him back to his wife, who has been his support and his partner through all his setbacks. Instead of ruin, his friends — not his debtors — have all heard that their friend is in serious trouble and have come to help. Their faith in their friend George never wavered (they know he didn’t steal anything), even if his faith in them failed, mirroring the faith that God has in each one of us even when we don’t have faith in Him or in ourselves. Even Sam Wainwright, from whom he ‘stole’ Mary, sends a line of credit that guarantees George will be saved. His brother, a Medal of Honor winner who was to make a triumphant entrance the next day, instead comes back in time to say what George finally realizes: he is indeed the richest man in town.
At its core, then, this movie isn’t about Christmas, it’s about faith: faith tested, faith failed, faith restored. George loses faith in himself and God and his friends and family, and is shown why their faith in him won’t completely fail. In a way, this is really more of an Easter story — Potter crucifies George, who becomes reborn. In order to make this work, you have to see George lose his soul, as he does in those moments after he realizes the ruin that Billy has made of their lives, and that means George has to do some unsympathetic things. A couple of the actions he takes at home borders on emotional abuse, which is why his wife asks him to leave. In order for the film to work, he has to hit bottom, and Stewart masterfully portrays this. …
When watching this film at any time of year, we are reminded that while events can cause us to lose faith in God and in ourselves, we can still hope that those around us do not lose their faith in us. We are not defined by how much or how little money we have; our goodness comes through in how we treat others and how we all help along the way. All the money in the world cannot save us from death, but God (and our friends) can save us from spiritual death in times of crisis. That’s why this is one of the greatest movies ever made and why it belongs in the top 10 of anyone’s movie list.
And why it — and its audience — are better served by Gray’s trailer.