Movie analysis: Frank Copra’s It’s a Wonderful Life

When I was growing up, a New Year’s Eve tradition among my five brothers and I, along with our parents, included watching It’s A Wonderful Life. It became a favorite, especially as I reached my later teens, such that I wanted to watch it first, but it was always the last in the order of how my parents decided to watch the Christmas movies.

Lately, I’ve examined what the significance would be to watch It’s A Wonderful Life on New Year’s Eve and the answer quickly grew obvious. It is a chance to live a whole new life after thinking about a decision like suicide, like George Bailey did. It helps a viewer rethink about what is truly meaningful at the core of your life and it is more than your ambitions but the random and close people in your life who evolve and help you.

Sometimes I’ve had my own moments when I truly believe life holds no place for me and it would be better if I hadn’t been born or it would make no difference if I was nonexistent. And I’m no exception. Most everyone feels this way, in one way or another. Sometimes, like George Bailey, I feel like no matter what I do or how high-up I aim, I will never achieve what I mean to accomplish or life situations stand in my way so I will never arrive at the destination I seek. Freedom is all anyone wants, but it is different for everyone. Travel for George Bailey equalized freedom and was at the heart of his desire.

A dark moment struck George when he looked over the bridge and thought about throwing himself down into the river. On an artistic note, I love how the emotions reflect George Bailey’s mood. For one, the scene is set at night and when he looks down at the water, all the viewer can see is black, showing the uncertainty. But at the end of the film, the camera shows it snowing again, signaling a new and pure beginning and a chance to see life in a new light again.

The enduring popularity had stunned Director Frank Capra seven years before his death in 1991.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work.”

The most powerful scene in the movie is when the whistle from the train blows after George Bailey discovers his plans are messed up when his brother, Harry, has taken a job at a glass factory that his new father-in-law now runs. Instead of Harry taking over like the brothers had planned, George is still stuck with the building and loan business his father left him. As the shrill whistle pierces the atmosphere, a tear glints in George’s eye. In film, a train is a common symbol used to note passing time or signaling the point of no return. George realizes he will never travel as he had hoped so he can keep the town running and out of Mr. Potter’s control.

Although Capra had received the original script from a writer, Philip Van Doren Stern and several others contributed to revisions, the movie has some striking parallels between his and George Bailey’s choices throughout life. While George kept his dreams alive to travel despite the duties expected of him to keep the family business running in the local small town of Bedford Falls, Capra pursued his own aspirations to be involved in the growing film business of Hollywood after his family moved to America from Sicily. Capra said in his autobiography, The Man Above the Title, that he excelled in school to the point where he juggled several odd jobs, but it was to help with additional funds for other family relatives still waiting to come over from Sicily. Capra’s mom worked twelve hours at an olive oil plant factory while his sister Ann helped in a dress shop and his dad was a hired farm hand.

“Except for books and lunch money, every penny I made in high school went to Mama,” he relayed on pages six and seven. “She needed it badly.”

Regardless, Capra still finished a degree in chemical engineering at Throop Polytechnic Institute. Also, like in the film, Capra lost his father to a heart attack. His father had invested in a lemon grove which took all the family members’ strength to maintain it, but they still fell behind. His dad wore his heart out. As Capra said in his autobiography, something always needed to be done. By the time Capra graduated, no business was hiring for his degree and laid off the engineers it had. Society and the people Capra and his family knew taunted him about being a good-for-nothing college graduate bum. In short, after a long and what appeared to be a fruitless search, Capra found a job as a math tutor for three years until he pursued his dream again.

On George Bailey’s side of things, Bedford Falls included his immediate family. When George saw a need, he fulfilled it, including when he was on his way to enjoy his honeymoon and used his money to save the bank. Overall he looked after others to the point where he overlooked himself and he regretted it. But despite that he never left town, he was definitely not a failure and it took his guardian angel, Clarence, rescuing him and granting his wish of never being born. Because of that, as Clarence reviewed a future without George Bailey, George realized what he had and how lives were affected without him there.

Contrary to what most may think today, the original audience didn’t embrace the 1946 release of until the 1970s and into the 1980s, as stated in Senior Writer Jennifer M. Wood’s recent article released on December 20, 2016. Instead, the audience expressed mixed feelings because they took it as Communist propaganda. Aside from that, they remained unimpressed about how the movie portrayed city bankers, even George Bailey. Instead of viewing him as selfless and compassionate, in that time the audience saw George supporting his own personal interests.

Sometimes life does not turn out in the romantic way you once viewed it, but your life still emulates meaning to those around you. Sometimes, like George Bailey, you don’t see it until it hits you in the face. Sometimes you need resonating reminders of where you come from so you don’t forget. Sometimes your friends or even strangers on the street can serve as angels.

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