Movie Review - It's a Wonderful Life

NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.
Frank Capra
Liberty Films

“Hello, Joseph. Trouble?”
“Looks like we’ll have to send someone down. There are a lot of people asking for help for a man named George Bailey.”
“George Bailey. Yes—tonight’s his crucial night—you’re right. We’ll have to send someone down immediately. Whose turn is it?”

That depends. Whose turn to do what? If you mean, “Whose turn to play the bad guy?” it’s divided between me and Mr. Potter. No, I’m not going to try to get George Bailey to sell out, or to shut him down just because he won’t sell out. No, I’m not trying to destroy all those wonderful George Bailey/Frank Capra American ideals, like Mr. Potter is. I’m not heartless. However, as a film critic I can do a pretty good job of pretending like I am. And this is how I get to play the bad guy: I’m going to point out all the problems with It’s a Wonderful Life (all the ones that seemed significant, at least), one by one; and I’m going to pretend that there’s nothing really appealing about the simple genuineness of Frank Capra’s directing or Jimmy Stewart’s acting, or the quaint old practice of putting all the credits at the beginning of the movie—and I’m going to pretend long enough, I hope, to give the film an objective rating.

Okay, so you don’t have to be all that objective to admit that there’s quite a bit of slang, minced oaths and name-calling in this movie. Slang: “shucks,” “stupid,” “shut up,” “son of a gun” (a few times each) and, of course, “hotdog!” Minced oaths: “gosh,” “holy mackerel,” “Sam hill,” a number of “doggone it”s, and a “Well, I’ll be…” that trails off into the wild blue yonder. The name-calling tends to be casual and flippant. Now, in my role as the villain in this review, I’m going to have to point out that some families have a problem with slang like that, and that there’s a reason why some of those phrases are called “minced oaths.”

Violent and Intense Content:
Well, objectivity isn’t much of an issue for this category, either, actually. I think we all recognize that there’s violence and intensity, to one degree or another, throughout the film. Hard knocks range from a young George’s employer giving him a bloody ear, to one of the older George’s enemies giving him a bloody lip. In a brief scene, a young George jumps into the river to save his little brother Harry from drowning; and then, later in the film, an older George jumps in the river to save somebody else from drowning. Intensity includes scenes of a desperate George shaking and yelling at his uncle, overturning furniture in his own house and frightening his children. And, of course, he later contemplates suicide, wishes he’d never been born, and sees a rather strange and alarming picture of life as it would have been without him. After a woman hangs up the telephone on him, he says he’ll “hang her up.”

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
Somehow I still don’t think I’m filling a very important need in this review yet, or at least not a very ruthless one. The people who are really bothered by the idea of cigars and chewing tobacco showing up in a movie probably don’t need me to be extra-critical of It’s a Wonderful Life on that account; nor the people who are bothered by the appearance or mention of wine. There is some flask-drinking, a father’s prohibition of gin and a son’s reluctant obedience; there is a scene in a bar, where George goes to get his “couple of stiff drinks,” and his companion goes to sample the rum punch or mulled wine of the twentieth century. There is drunkenness of the angry kind and of the comical kind.

Sexual Content:
Here we go for objectivity at last: tally marks. Because, you see, George Bailey’s story is also the story of the women in his life—how they won his heart… or at least his attention. This fellow had been planning as a kid to have “a couple of harems, and maybe three or four wives,” and there were two little girls who, at that time, might have been interested in making up some of the party. One of them grew up to be the sort of woman who flicks her curls and swings her hips whenever men are around, gazes into men’s eyes, kisses men on the cheek, and refuses to go for a moonlight swim with a man not because it’s an inappropriate suggestion, but because she doesn’t care for the great outdoors. Here come the tally marks: the other little girl grew up to be the kind of woman who kisses George Bailey (or Jimmy Stewart, rather) literally a dozen times in the course of the movie, both before and after she marries him (George Bailey, not Jimmy Stewart).

And in the meanwhile, George himself has grown up, to be the sort of man who is attracted to both women, but ends up choosing the one he had, a few years ago, escorted home after a dance where her dress was ruined and she left wearing nothing but a robe held together by one hand. Awkward situations related to that segment include an inadvertently suggestive remark about Mary looking older “without your clothes on,” and a “very interesting situation” when the girl loses her clothing altogether and takes refuge in a hydrangea bush, pleading for an amused George to hand her back her robe.

A few years later, the still-unmarried George jokes with his mother that he’s going to go see Mary for “a little passionate necking,” and when he gets there and proves completely unresponsive to Mary’s attempts to rekindle the old romance, she tells her mother that he is “making violent love” to her—meaning something other than the modern definition of the phrase, but by no means indicating pure, innocent, gentlemanly behavior.

Other characters are seen flirting with women at different points in the movie, and a young Harry Bailey jokingly declares his love for the middle-aged housekeeper and pursues her into the kitchen, swatting her on the behind just before the door shuts. That world that George gets to see, at the end of the movie, in which he had never been born, is taken over with dance clubs, one of them bearing a sign which says, “Gorgeous Girls. Girls. Girls. Girls,” and at another club the police are arresting some of those girls.

Yes, the world without George Bailey is a grim place to be. Without him, people are reduced to poverty, put in insane asylums, or even die; and, interestingly, without George, sin abounds. It might be argued that this is partly because he wasn’t there to stop Mr. Potter from taking over the town and bringing in the bars and dance clubs and their negative influence on the town, but I’m running out of opportunities to play the bad guy, and besides, you do have to be careful about things that might hint at an environmental cause of sin.

Another difference George made in the world was to keep the Bailey Building and Loan running, despite Potter’s attempts to run him out. And the whole point of having a business with the word “loan” in the title is to maintain a borrower/lender relationship, which is something that many families go out of their way to avoid in real life. Mr. Potter, the real bad guy, holds the position that families should “wait and save their money,” to buy a house with cash, while George replies, “Wait? Wait for what? Do you know how long it takes a working man to save up $5,000?” Of course, if you look at the situation objectively (which is what I’m trying to do here), a lot of Christian families actually side with Potter on this issue, out of conviction, but the movie directs them to side with George, perhaps against their convictions.

The middle-aged housekeeper is a feminist—an all-children-should-be-girls, I’ve-been-saving-this-money-for-a-divorce-if-ever-I-get-a-husband kind of feminist, and while her views are supposed to be comical, and therefore not very reasonable, the comedy could end up making the feminism seem acceptable.

Comedy can make a lot of things feel acceptable in the movies. For instance, the silliness and immaturity when the dance floor opens up and everyone starts jumping into the swimming pool beneath it, the commitment-less romantic interludes between George and Mary, the inclination to take out frustration on inanimate objects, and a lot of things from the categories I’ve already finished talking about. Tradition, or perhaps historical accuracy, can also create a false acceptability about some of the actions and attitudes in movies like It’s a Wonderful Life. Back when that movie was made, most people didn’t see anything wrong with the idea of marrying a girl your family’s never even heard of, or marrying a man before you’ve met any of his family—or with the idea of going off on your honeymoon with an “After that, who cares?” philosophy and absolutely no plans or provisions for the future.

You remember those first lines in the review—almost the very first lines of the movie? Here’s a worldview issue for you: they’re spoken by stars. Oh, they’re not really stars, I don’t think, so you only have to worry about the implications of the characters taking the form of stars. One of the celestial characters is referred to as “Joseph,” as you know, and the other remains unidentified. He can’t be the Lord, because he needed reminding about George Bailey’s crucial night, and yet, whoever he is, he gets to be in charge of dispatching guardian angels—that is, dead humans. Poor Clarence doesn’t have his wings yet. He’s only an AS2—Angel, Second Class. Think how humiliating all this is for him, and how embarrassed he would be to learn that, biblically, he wasn’t qualified to be an angel of any class. Of course, neither is any human being. Earning wings isn’t listed among the activities of the departed saints or of angels any more than reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is, and if it had been, odds are it wouldn’t have anything to do with bells ringing. George praying to Clarence to rescue him, and Clarence praying to Joseph to rescue him, is far from being acceptable to Protestant doctrine, as is George’s friend praying to “Jesus and Mary.” George is said to have “wept and prayed” on the final victory days of the War, but in his hour of desperation he says, “God, dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man,” which suggests that he may not have been a believer, and unfortunately also feels like an attempt to make it easier for the average viewer to identify with him. An Italian woman crosses herself, and characters’ remarks about people’s souls include asking God to “rest” one fellow’s soul and doubting whether another fellow even has one.

The moral of the film, as written by Clarence, is “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” And, of course, we have to ask, “A failure at what?”

I had really thought when I started the review that I would be the villain by being objective and trying to pick up on all of the bad content in the movie, but for the most part, I think everyone would have agreed before I reviewed It’s a Wonderful Life that all of those things were in there. The list is pretty much complete, and I haven’t had to say anything hard yet. But the review isn’t over. There is still the question of a rating, and I know it would take serious objectivity (and maybe a bad guy) to give It’s a Wonderful Life anything less than an Enjoyable. And that’s what I’m going to do.

Maybe I haven’t had to be more objective than usual about what content there was in the movie, but I’m going to be objective about how much it really matters—to me, at least. I know the movie’s a classic, and I loved it, too, but if I’m going to be objective, I have to say that there are too many negative things in It’s a Wonderful Life—things like the language, the sexual content and the worldview—for me to be able to enjoy it as fully as I should be able to enjoy any movie I watch for pleasure. And if I’m not going to be objective about It’s a Wonderful Life, I might as well just go ahead and give positive ratings to all the movies I liked, and negative ratings to the ones I didn’t—which would make film reviewing pointless. So here I am, playing the bad guy, and declaring that, despite the charms of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life is a film I do not intend to watch again.

If you can objectively review the content and still feel that you will be able to enjoy the movie and honor God at the same time, and to the extent you ought, I’ll bow to the convictions of your family. I will suggest, however, a minimum age of eight for the audience, because of elements like the comical drunkenness, which make it difficult for younger children to distinguish between good and evil; and I recommend parental supervision and explanation for children under the age of twelve, because of all the easy-to-miss unbiblical attitudes (and the whole Clarence issue).

So, whose turn is it now?

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