This year seems to have left a number of people united in the same singular Christmas wish: that 2016 should be over as soon as possible. Indeed, extraordinary levels of despair and resentment have been voiced against an apparently wretched year that has given us political turmoil, yet swept away an array of beloved creative talents. For those grappling with such unfathomable developments, Christmas might well provide a welcome sanctuary and, given that certain films have become such symbolic features of the festive period, titles like Miracle on 34th Street, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Elf - even Home Alone - may offer a welcome escape from life’s immediate realities. And, of course, some films provide the added escape of nostalgia, conjuring up images of not only Christmas but also fond memories of Christmas past. We can see this trend continue as uneven titles like the borderline-misogynist Love Actually or the downright creepy The Polar Express become comforting touchstones for a generation.
Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) is certainly a fixture of festive film viewing. Indeed, its status as a beloved classic came about through its regular screening on television, decades after its original cinematic release. There is no doubt that the film contains one of the most jubilatory moments of happiness in cinema – perhaps Hollywood’s happiest happy ending. And yet, Capra’s work doesn’t only offer easy comfort. Its central character, George Bailey, becomes suicidal when a sum of money is stolen from him on Christmas Eve and his world seems to collapse before him. The intervention of a guardian angel, Clarence, saves him by showing George what that world would be like without him – leading us to the film’s joyful conclusion. But the theft of the money is only one in a series of hardships that George endures. In his life, he is buffeted by life’s unpredictability, made to discard dreams and accommodate the choices of others. Christmas, and the theft of the money, becomes the focal point for these frustrations, and there is a memorable scene in which George storms into the Bailey home and, with uncharacteristic intolerance, berates his family’s efforts at festive cheer. Yet, his desolation stems from a catalogue of struggles spanning a whole lifetime – hence Clarence’s need to show George the wonderful contribution his whole life has made in order to rescue him. The film commits itself to life’s injustices and insists on characterising Christmas as a period in which those hardships can become amplified, rather than muted. It reminds us that celebrating Christmas can be difficult and might require effort, given that it is one day in the context of so many.
Crucially, Capra’s film does not finish with a complete reversal of fortunes. The theft of the money is alleviated thanks to the charitable donations of George’s warm community but the thief, Mr Potter, remains unpunished and there is no reason to believe that his antagonism of George will desist. Given that It’s A Wonderful Life continues a number of themes found in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it is interesting to note that the one character most resembling Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr Potter himself, should dodge entirely any kind of Scrooge-like redemption. Potter is a ruthless and abusive capitalist with no sense of fairness who, given the opportunity, likes to lend his name to entire structures of human habitation. Thank goodness no one like that is around today. By leaving Potter unpunished, the film resists a perfect balance and retains its awareness of life’s inequalities: the cycle of struggles may continue into the future, beyond Christmas Day.
So It’s A Wonderful Life is a useful film for Christmas 2016. It doesn’t attempt to smooth over life’s imperfections or solve the world’s problems through its deux ex machina. But re-watch the moments after George is granted his return to the world, when the money is still lost and his life is hopelessly uncertain. Watch him shout out joyful greetings to the buildings he passes, bang on Potter’s window and wish him merry Christmas, welcome the men who have come to arrest him, gather his children around his limbs and kiss his wife’s face over and over again as if losing contact would risk losing her again. George’s defiant joy in these moments might provide a different kind of comfort to us. Not the comfort of denial or retreat, but of embracing life’s hardships along with the happiness of Christmas. And the comfort that, 70 years ago, a film was made that knew about the unpredictable chaos of existence. We might like to think that 2016 represents a novel kind of chaotic unpredictability, but others have been there before us and survived.