There may be no other movie that’s more beloved at this time of year than Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s hard to find any other director whose work better represented “traditional” American values than Capra and It’s A Wonderful Life may be the most American of any of his films: all-American James Stewart is George Bailey—an everyman living in the small town of Bedford Falls who sees his life as a failure and decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve before heavenly intervention, in the form of angel-in-training Clarence, saves the day.
But when you closely examine the film, it’s easy to see how much its traditional Americana resembles the Asian American experience.
But first, a little background on the film. Based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story The Greatest Gift, It’s A Wonderful Life was met with mixed reviews and a weak box office return upon its initial release. Capra, who was one of Hollywood’s most successful directors with previous efforts like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, never fully recovered from his movie’s poor reception and his career never again reached the heights that it had in the past.
The story might have ended there, but a real-life Christmas miracle took place. Due to various factors, the copyright on the film was not renewed so during the 1970s and 1980s, anyone could air the movie or even release it on video without worrying about the rights. And they did…a lot, especially around the Christmas holidays. Because it was cheap and appropriate for the season, It’s A Wonderful Life played everywhere and anywhere during this time of year, but what happened because of that was more and more people re-discovered it, eventually making it the Christmas classic it is today.
People have accused Capra of being too sentimental and saccharine and point to this film as a prime example of that. While It’s A Wonderful Life does contain some of those qualities, I think it’s ultimately held up as long as it has because it’s a much more complex work. As director Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) has said, at its core, the film is very dark. This is a story about a man who has wanted nothing more than to escape from his suffocating environment and make something of himself in the world, but has had to sacrifice his own dreams for the sake of others including his own family. When he thinks he has accomplished nothing with his life and decides to kill himself by jumping off a bridge—it’s easy to forget that suicide wasn’t a topic that the Hollywood studios of the time were clamoring to make a family holiday film about.
I think what makes the film so moving is that it’s not afraid to look at the lowest depths of the human experience. That’s why the “happy” ending is so effective—we’ve seen how far Stewart had fallen and what he had sacrificed to get to this point so no matter how saccharine the ending may be, it feels earned.
I grew up watching the movie on TV every Christmas and I have to admit that initially I dismissed it as sentimental crap. It wasn’t until I was older—in high school and college—that I really began to understand and appreciate the film’s complexities and recognize the very real darkness and pain and hurt at the heart of George Bailey’s journey. And I think what really helped me to see that was understanding that in many ways, this all-American story was also the story of my immigrant parents and, in that sense, an Asian American story.
It’s A Wonderful Life is really about two things: sacrifice and family. And when it comes to the Asian immigrant experience in America, nothing defines that narrative as much as those two things do: sacrifice and family. George Bailey’s story is the story of my parents’ generation—they gave up their own lives to come here to build a better one for their family, knowing they would have to sacrifice any dreams of their own for that to happen. More than any other film I know, It’s A Wonderful Life honors that sacrifice. It says that there is nothing which makes a man richer or more successful than that which he does selflessly for those he cares about. It says that a life lived in such a way will have a profound effect on the world in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. And that is our story as much as it is George Bailey’s.
(Thanks to Offender David for his photoshop skills)