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"It's a Wonderful Life" Is Not a Christmas Movie

Updated on December 5, 2017

Every year at this time, film critics roll out their old tired list of their top 10 or so Christmas films. A lot of familiar movies are inevitably going to be on those lists. Miracle On 34th Street, The Santa Clause, A Christmas Story, A Christmas Carol, Elf and Home Alone, just to name a few. Occasionally there will be a film on one of those list you would not have thought of as a holiday movie. Lethal Weapon, Brazil, Batman Returns and others that just happen to take place at Christmas time. The fringe Christmas movies which causes many arguments amongst film buffs over what qualifies.

The other day I was listening to two film critics arguing over the merits of Die Hard as a Christmas movie. For one, it was definitely a Christmas film, with references to the holiday woven throughout. To the other, it was an action movie where an office Christmas party was just a backdrop, but the rest of the movie had nothing to do with Christmas. His argument was for any movie to be a Christmas movie, it needed a plot that was specifically about the holiday.

I was agreeing with the second critic's argument, when suddenly it occurred to me.... It's A Wonderful Life is not a Christmas movie.

It's A Wonderful Life is found near the top of every Christmas movie list. It's plot, about a guardian angel showing Jimmy Stewart what everyone's life would be like had he never been born, is so synonymous with Christmas, that it has been ripped off for countless Christmas episodes on sitcoms. And yet, the plot has nothing to do with Christmas. Sure, the story does take place on Christmas Eve, but just like with Die Hard, Christmas is just the backdrop.

The film opens with angels discussing George Bailey, a good Christian who is on the verge of committing suicide. Intervention by a guardian angel is needed, and angel in training Clarence is sent to Earth for his first mission. But before that, he is shown a recap of George Bailey's life. This flashback accounts for most of the film's running time.

It is not flashbacks to Christmas' past, as with A Christmas Carol, but important milestones in George's life. Such as having to give up collage when his father suddenly dies, and take over running the family Savings & Loan, leading up to that Christmas Eve where Uncle Billy misplaces the deposit of the S&L bankroll, putting George in danger of prosecution of bank fraud. He realizes the only way out is a life insurance policy which will pay off the financial shortfall and save the S&L. And once caught up in the story, it is up to Clarence to stop George from killing himself, and to somehow convince him that life is worth living.

Clarence finds George on a bridge about to jump in the river below, so pretends to have fallen into the river himself and calls out for help. George jumps into the river to rescue him. I don't see how Clarence made much of a difference, seeing as George ended up in the river anyway. But at least George was temporarily not thinking about ending his own life.

While every now and then there are reminders that it is Christmas Eve, the story at this point is all about the lost money, and George's spiral into depression over it, leading to his decision to off himself.

Once on dry land, Clarence finds it impossible to convince George that he is an angel, and is further unable to convince him not to throw away his life. George mentions that everyone would have been better off if he had never been born, which gives Clarence an idea. Telling George that he got his wish, Clarence takes George back into town, which is suddenly owned by the evil miser Mr.Potter. The friends and townspeople he knew are all miserable, having not had George Bailey in their lives to help them when they needed it, or his S&L to keep them from owing money to Potter. And since George was never born, no one recognizes him. Even his wife and own mother thinks he is a stranger. Eventually George comes to accept that Clarence was telling the truth, and beggs to be sent back to his original timeline.

As the film draws to a close, George is elated to know the time line has been restored. There is a minute or two where a happy George runs through town wishing everyone and everything a Merry Christmas. But then it is right back to the lost money subplot. Bank regulators summoned by Potter have come to investigate George and his S&L. But before he can be arrested in his own home, his friends and townspeople show up and begin tossing their money into a basket in order to raise enough to keep George from going to jail. It is not the Christmas spirit that compels them to help, but their love and respect for George Bailey, and determination to do everything they can to help him, just as he helped them when they needed it.

Okay, so the entire cast begins to sing Hark The Herald Angels Sing, George gets a gift from Clarence, and a bell ornament on the Christmas tree rings signifying that Clarence did get his wings, but that is all in the very final minutes. It's A Wonderful Life fails the same test that Die Hard fails. It's story has nothing to do with Christmas other than the date both films take place on.

My personal litmus test, if you edit out all references to Christmas, would the story still work? That can't be done with A Miracle On 34th Street. But it could be done with Batman Returns, and Lethal Weapon, and Brazil, and it could be easily done with Die Hard. And it can be done with It's A Wonderful Life. The story could have taken place on Columbus Day and still worked.

Some Christian groups have even declared the film anti-Christmas. In their view, Christmas is supposed to be the day when we celebrate the life of Jesus. It's A Wonderful Life celebrates the life of George Bailey. It is George, and not Jesus, who is praised for being a savior. If not for the existence of George Bailey, the lives of many would be for the worse. On Christmas Eve the masses flock to pay tribute to George Bailey instead of Jesus. This may sound like the overactive imagination of christians looking for conspiracies against their religion under every rock, but they do have a point. The movie is not about how great Christmas is, but how great this one fictional character is.

So by all standards, It's A Wonderful Life is not a Christmas movie. Or at the least, is just as much a Christmas film as Die Hard. Something to think about the next time it's plot ends up being used for some television shows Christmas episode.


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