Do you want to do something this Christmas season that is just plain old-fashioned family building and fun? Sit down all together and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
I have been watching Frank Capra’s 1940 film during Christmas season as long as I can remember, so much so that I have a few of the scenes memorized. You can’t beat this classic for its realistic portrayal of people in crisis and how good finally triumphs over evil.
Originally written as a short story by writer and Civil War historian Philip Van Doren, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was partly inspired by “A Christmas Carol.”
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a guardian angel named Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers, encounters George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. Bailey is overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and despair, lamenting the failures of his life. He decides to commit suicide, thinking his family (who will get his life insurance money) and the fictional town of Bedford Falls would all be better off without him.
Not unlike the three Christmas ghosts who frighten and then inspire Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” Odbody shows George Bailey what his family and indeed the entire town would be like without his influence. What Bailey sees is horrific. In the end, we are reminded the impact of one person who is committed to doing good.
This message of this film came from a very deep place in Frank Capra. An Italian immigrant who arrived with his family in 1903, Capra made a series of films that appear to reflect his profound love for America. Capra firmly believed in the American dream, but felt it could only be attained through hard work and righteous actions, not through corruption, scheming or oppression.
Capra always remembered his arrival by ship in New York Harbor. He later described how his father, Salvatore, seeing the Statue of Liberty, turned to his son and said, “Look at that! That’s the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That’s the light of freedom! Remember that: Freedom.” The name of Capra’s production company? Liberty Films.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Capra juxtaposes the American Dream and the American Nightmare. Good is seen in George Bailey and evil is personified in banker Henry F. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore. To Capra, the choice we make is profoundly consequential and influential.
In a world where money, fame, and self-centeredness seem to be celebrated, here we have another orientation to life that has redeeming value. Years after it became a classic, Jimmy Stewart summed up the film’s message by offering this reflection on it:
“It’s simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and a selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life.”
That is a message for everyone this Christmas and always.
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.