It’s a Wonderful Life Blogaton: Nostalgia, Flashback, and Gender in the Holiday Classic
As I sat down to consider this Blogathon, I came up against a bit of a struggle. I’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life a few times, but the magic so many people feel for this movie always eluded me. To be honest, I always came away feeling a bit like Phoebe did in Friends when she talked about the classic.
Now, I preface this with something I’ve often said in this blog, time changes perspective. Just because a film hits you one way at a certain time, it doesn’t mean it can’t change later. Film is an ever-evolving art form and personal, societal, and cultural perspective is capable of changing the meaning of a work at any given time.
It’s a Wonderful Life follows the story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart). Despite having a beautiful wife (Donna Reed) and adorable children, things aren’t going well. We all know the Christmas classic (even if you haven’t seen it). As George Bailey sits on the brink of suicide an Angel (Henry Travers) shows him what the world would be like if he was never born. Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, and Gloria Grahame co-star in the movie. Frank Capra directs the film from a script he co-wrote with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
Watching the film, I was immediately blown away at how It’s a Wonderful Life, manages to feel incredibly timely to the immediate post-WWII era, while also striking a chord with people more than 70 years after its initial release.
It’s a Wonderful Life crafts a fascinating treatment of nostalgia. The movie spans more than 30 years beginning in 1919. The narrative follows George Bailey through childhood, adolescence, and into his adulthood during the World War II era.
Interestingly, the movie rarely feels like a period piece. Aside from a few details in the set decor or in actors’ make-up, 1919 feels exactly like 1929 and even 1946. There’s a sense of nostalgia in that we are following this man’s story and charting his growth, but it always feels contemporary.
Hitting theaters in January of 1947, It’s a Wonderful Life tells a timely tale. While George Bailey is cusping middle age as the film reaches his conclusion, the movie taps into the struggles weighing down a generation of men during this period. It’s a Wonderful Life is of course a fantasy, but the struggles of its characters are very real.
World War II ended less than two years before and at the time of the film’s release, the United States was immersed in the mass return to normalcy following the end of fighting. We’ve come to recognize this era in its popularized form in 1950s sitcoms. Women left the workforce, there were lots of marriages and even more babies. Happy families moved into suburban hamlets with lots of white picket fences.
At the same time though, this era gave rise to generations of sexual and gender issues. Second-wave feminism wouldn’t exist without The Feminine Mystique which took root in this era. Less analyzed, but just as prevalent is the concept of the ‘Man in the Gray Flannel Suit‘.
In telling George Bailey’s story, Frank Capra takes the struggles many men experienced during this era and stretches them over thirty years. In the return to normalcy after WWII, a generation of young people married and started families. Many women weren’t ready to give up their wartime jobs and return to roles as homemakers. At the same time, young men (often with fresh wartime trauma) found themselves caring for families they weren’t ready for in jobs they didn’t care about. To compound matters, dictates of acceptable masculinity discouraged men from feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. They were the providers.
With the exception of the veteran status, this is George’s story to the letter. We hear throughout that George would have likely served if it wasn’t for his 4-F status. This… again… another snag in the traditional dictates of masculinity. George falls into the family business and gainfully gives up his education after his father’s death. He fights marriage until he realizes how smitten he is with Mary (Donna Reed). Before long, he finds himself a father of four with no education and trapped in a job he can’t stand. So, when even his job kicks him when he’s down, it’s no surprise he wants to jump off a bridge.
In contemplating the universality of this plot, the purpose of the script structure suddenly makes sense. In the grand scheme of the narrative, the plot we remember (George contemplating suicide) doesn’t happen until the third act. Almost an hour and a half of this movie is entirely comprised of flashbacks and character development. With so much character development delivered in very contemporary-looking flashbacks, Capra is doing one thing: building identification. It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t work if George isn’t sympathetic. Generations of men can see themselves in George Bailey.
It’s a Wonderful Life shows us just a how work can evolve with perspective. As mentioned, we’re more than 70 years removed from its release. The historical relevance of this film in post-WWII culture is deep in the rearview mirror. With that though, it has lived on as a Christmas classic. The reasons are of course endless, the message, the character arcs, and the final scene. It is truly a Christmas miracle that such a dark movie ends with such hope in the human condition.
As I mentioned, I have struggled with this film historically. Revisiting it for this write-up, I still found myself struggling through the darkness in the narrative. At the same time though, the hope and love in the performances shone through in ways I didn’t appreciate as a youngster. This starts (of course) with Jimmy Stewart. I believe he is probably the only man who could play this part. He also reaches a new level in that he was only recently back from lengthy war service himself. He’s feeling every literal and metaphorical punch George takes, and the movie is much better for it.
There is of course something utterly human and relatable in George Bailey’s story. 75 years later, we’re still working jobs we don’t like. We’re still getting bad breaks and things don’t always go our way. That doesn’t change and this isn’t simply an examination of toxic masculinity’s effects on society. We need to be able to believe that society will come together, in the end, to make things better. These miracles are completely and utterly at home over Christmas. This is why It’s a Wonderful Life still enjoys the reputation it does, so many years later.
A holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life is widely available through a number of sources.
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Interesting piece. I myself revisiting and reassessing movies all the time, although I’ve come to understand that in reality I’m actually reassessing myself. I think the truth of the matter is the movies don’t change, but we do. This can be said of all art of course. Art is nothing if it cannot speak to us across the ages and perhaps across cultures too. Isn’t all art a reflection of human experience and human feeling, the human condition in fact? That works from an earlier age continue to resonate and connect with people of diverse backgrounds indicates a basic truth at their core.
Kimberly, thank you for joining us for this celebration!
As always, your post is well thought out and articulated. I agree with you re: Jimmy Stewart was the only one who could play that part, and boy, did he deliver..
If you’d be kind enough to include the banner and link to the entries in your post, I’d greatly appreciate it.
Thank you again and Merry Christmas! 🙂
Shoot! Yes! I’m so sorry! (I can’t believe I looked over that). Yep. I’ll update that today. Thank you as always for your kind words and the invite.
No worries! There’s so much to remember for these blogathon thingies 😀 Thank you!
When I was a teen, I liked this movie for the upbeat ending and because Jimmy Stewart was a favorite actor of mine. In my twenties, I liked it because I was working what people kept telling me was a job “beneath me,” which frustrated me — it was hard to fight against other people’s perceptions of myself, and I saw George Bailey doing the same. In my thirties, we lived in a crummy little apartment filled with more kids than it could really hold and I struggled to make it feel like a home or feel contented there… just like George has trouble being contented with his drafty old house crowded with kids. And in my forties, it strikes me how heroic Mary and George are, standing together to build a good life for their family and help everyone around them, including each other.
As you say, movies change with us. Some, like this one, grow with us.
I am SO glad you gave Phoebe a shoutout! 🙂 I considered including that moment in my post, but reluctantly let the idea go when I just couldn’t make it fit with my theme. And I’ve been shocked that none of the others I’ve read so far mention it, as it’s one of the first things that come to mind when I think of It’s a Wonderful Life. It seems nobody but Phoebe has ever really called out how difficult some of it is to watch – until you. 🙂
I, too, have had mixed feelings about this classic. particularly regarding George’s actions and general attitude. But over time, I’ve grown to see more (surprisingly relatable) significance – in him, and in the film itself. And it’s interesting that you mention James Stewart’s wartime service, because that was the (main) topic of my post! 😀 If you haven’t yet, I’d love for you to check it out – because I think we compliment each other perfectly!