Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Religious Art of the Highest Degree

This is an essay that might suit the audiovisual format better. In that case, it can be viewed/listened to here:

I cannot pretend to be a some kind of cineaste. From Sight and Sound’s 2022 list of the greatest films of all time I have seen a measly fifty-two of them (pitiful, I know–especially for someone who has intellectual pretensions). But if there were one film that I feel I could perhaps write something of value about–glean something that could contain at least a granule of truth–then it would be the film ranked number 133 on that list: a film I have seen at least a dozen times because it is a great favourite of mine: namely, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946.

The film is based on a short story published in 1943 called The Greatest Gift by the now little-known author Philip van Doren Stern. While credit has to be given for this progenesis, further comparisons between the two are hardly warranted: firstly because van Doren Stern’s work is artistically atrocious and secondly because of the major plot differences. Whereas most of Capra’s film is concerned with narrating George’s life up until his suicide attempt, The Greatest Gift starts off right at the bridge with George ready to jump into the freezing waters below.

Capra’s decision to let us spend over an hour becoming acquainted with George and the other characters surrounding his life was a wise one because in being launched in medias res into The Greatest Gift there is not much sympathy to be held towards anyone in its story. Many of the things that underpin George’s heroism in the film: his unrequited sacrifices, the Building and Loan bank keeping the town from collapse and the monstrous antagonism of a villain in the form of Henry F. Potter–are all missing here. 

And conversely, there are details in the short story that are entirely absent in the film. For example, in The Greatest Gift, the guardian angel (who is nameless) has instructed George to act like a furniture brush salesman in order to gain access to people’s homes. When he sees that the people who are supposed to be most dear to him don’t recognise him there is almost no dismay on George’s part: the interaction is so unsympathetic and cold that George in the end comes across as almost being more interested in selling the god-damned brushes than anything else. Here we see it in the scene where he goes to visit his mother-who-never-was:

His mother, who was waiting in the hallway, obviously did not recognize him. George opened his sample kit and grabbed the first brush that came to hand. “Good evening, ma’am,” he said politely. “I’m from the World Cleaning Company. We’re giving out a free sample brush. I thought you might like to have one.” 

Politely aloof. She tells George that his wife-who-never-was, Mary, has married and had two children with a formal rival (another major digression from the film, where Mary has become an old maid). The sigh he lets out upon hearing this has no pain in it whatsoever–it could just as well be one of joyful relief for all I know:

I remember a girl named Mary Thatcher. She married Art Jenkins, I heard. You must know them.”
“Of course,” his mother said. “We know Mary well.”
“Any children?” he asked casually.
“Two—a boy and a girl.”
George sighed audibly.

And just take a look at his careless reaction immediately after hearing from her that his brother Harry has died:

“I’m sorry,” he said miserably. “I guess I’d better go. I hope you like the brush. And I wish you both a very Merry Christmas.” 

Now compare that with the same scene in the film. The sequence here is despairingly nightmarish: from the first tender “Mother” that George utters, to her meanness and suspicion, to the framing of George’s frantic expressions and the eeriness of the music: Capra captures so strongly what must only be the maddening anguish of realising that you are trapped in a world where your very essence has ceased to exist:

The Religion of It’s a Wonderful Life

There are many ludicrous interpretations of this film out there that seem pay not only total disregard to the film itself but also one of Capra’s comments that he made about it: that with it he wanted “to combat a modern trend toward atheism.”  I think there is a whole lot to be unpacked in that remark and it is my sincere belief that It’s a Wonderful Life ought to go down as one of the great religious works of art from the twentieth century. 

Yet in spite of the angels, the Christmas setting and the miraculous intervention to save George’s life, the film is not explicitly Christian or even religious for that matter. We risk confounding the film by juxtaposing it alongside works we otherwise think of when hearing the term “religious art”: works like paintings, music or poems that come in the form of biblical depiction, worship or mystical experience. The “atheism” that Capra laments here is not a lament for a decline in church attendence or a statistical change in the answers registered during the last U.S. census, but rather a complaint against a society for whom he feels life, and the individual life in particular, is no longer meaningful and therefore, sacred. 

Over a year ago I posted a series of three essays on Leo Tolsoy’s non-fiction, in the last of which I went through his radical theory on art. For Tolstoy the highest manifestation of the arts was the religious, which for him did not signify doctrinal exhibition or divine adoration, but was rather contained in works that express the virtues of humility, self-renunciation and the affirmation of the universal brotherhood of man: religious because they affirm the divinely intended purpose of life: pointing upward in pointing down to what will help usher in the kingdom of God here on earth.

Under such criteria, Tolstoy notoriously rejected most works of art ever produced (including the novels he himself wrote). It’s a Wonderful Life however is a film that explores such themes and has a morally profound message of real urgency. What he gets at when talking about religious art is what I feel It’s a Wonderful Life is, and as such I would imagine that had he lived long enough to be able to watch it, then it would have made the cut.

The Gospel of Bailey

While I above all want to stress George Bailey’s human, everyman qualities–his virtues and shortcomings–one cannot deny that he overall comes across as a Christ-like figure in the film. Like the gospels, It’s a Wonderful Life is broadly the story of a man carrying a cross not chiefly burdened with personal woes but with those of an entire community and a story preoccupied with the suffering that he goes through because of this sacrifice. The most climactic scene depicting this anguish comes towards the end, when the bank he runs has lost 8000 dollars and George, having taken leave of his family after a fit of rage, finds himself in Martini’s bar, praying to find some way out of his dire predicament:

Compare this with Christ’s agony in Gethsemane as depicted in the Gospel of Mark (14:32-36). The similarities between the two scenes can hardly be coincidential (the prescient sense of death, the hopelessness, the desperation of the prayer immediately answered in the negative: Christ being delivered to the authorities, George being knocked down to the floor)

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

And just as the gospels build up to the central event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, so does It’s a Wonderful Life work towards one focal point: George’s death and resurrection-like experience of getting to see what the world would have looked like had he never lived.

Resist not Evil

The film spans over two decades of George’s adult life, and while the filmmakers have done their best to depict the ageing of the characters over time, George and Mary look more or less the same at the end as parents to four children as they did when they were youngsters dancing the Charleston at the high school ball. While such a minor defect is easily overlooked, the agelessness of one of the characters in particular is completely fitting: that of the villain, Henry F. Potter. This is what he looks like back in 1919 (when George is still a child):

and this is what he looks like three decades letter, in 1945:

There have been no attempts to make him look older whatsoever.

I cannot think of any more contemptible antagonist in a film that I have seen. There is nothing good in him and as such, nothing human–since there’s nothing human, nothing that could age–nothing even that should die. When I initially saw this film I saw in him an inhuman monstrosity–a vampire of sorts–but the more I watch it the more of an abstraction he becomes–the more he seems like the embodiment of the idea of evil. Besides his agelessness, there are other details that suggest this. As we saw in the first of the extracts above, he has no family, he has no children and he has no need or use of material possessions. His contribution In World War II is as head of the draft board and therefore the one most responsible for sending young men to their death in war. He delights only in what ought not to be: he puts a price on human life and is the one who directly goads George into committing suicide by pointing out that his life has no value:

His abstractness is further supported by the fact that no one can lay hands on him. Potter is an old invalid–it would not to be hard for someone to wring his neck or plunge a knife in his chest–George himself could have done it and spared the town of his persistent torment–yet no-one touches him–it is as though they physically couldn’t because he is only the embodiment of something that never perishes and the more I watch this film the more I think that he will surely outlive all the characters in the story. Is it not so significant therefore that Potter is undefeated at the film’s end? As heartwarming and life-affirming as that ending is, we must remember that the very next day Potter will be going back to hanging over George and the town like a plague again.

And in its relationship to the concept of evil, embodied by Potter, It’s a Wonderful Life can be seen as offering a Christian perspective. How should one confront evil? By not resisting it–by turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39)–by loving one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). While George has many heated arguments with Potter throughout the film, he comes to practice the Christian ethic most perfectly at the end when he has been given his life back. Bear in mind that Potter has just driven him to the verge of suicide and issued a warrant for his arrest, and how does George respond? By banging on the window to his office and crying out:

Hark! The Kingdom Cometh!

With the exception of the first scene where the angels talk to each other, the first three-quarters of the film or so (up until Clarence intervenes to save George’s life) are very realistic. They not only accurately depict certain historical events (the Depression and World War II), but the story and the grievances of the characters are very mundane–common to any community. What’s so clever about this is that it makes the fantastical, supernatural, and even at times facetious aspects of the final part perfectly believable:

From that final sequence I want to focus on the very famous last scene. One thing that is strange about it is that it is hardly a resolution of the central problem presented throughout the film: that is, of George’s inability to follow his dreams. Were this your typical plot, then George as the protagonist ought to finally get what he has always wanted and Potter as the antagonist receive his comeuppance. None of that happens. What is instead unravelled is a moral revelation that negates–that forgives, perhaps?–everything that has happened. This film is not a comment on the American Dream and its possibility–if it does say anything about it then it is only that it was entirely misguided from the get-go. Life is a wonderful thing not because it can be a means of self-enrichment and aggrandisement, but because it fundamentally means something for other people.

Though it ought only be George who has had this epiphany at the end, it is as though the whole town has had it too, and in the magic of the last scene it feels as though a new world–a new order is welcomed into being: where man embraces man in universal love and where the institutions of authority and oppression have been dissolved. One of the most touching details in this scene and in all the film for me is when the bank examiner leaves money at the collection basket and above when the district attorney’s sheriff tears up George’s arrest warrant. That would be a serious criminal offense on his part, but it is fitting because it is as though all these tools for domination and control–both fiscal and judiciary–have become totally irrelevant in the world-to-be:

Yes, the town does come together to bail George out (and then some!) but at this point money is of no value to him anymore. George couldn’t care less about the 8000 dollars–he has just shaken the bank examiner and the sheriff’s hands crying out:

The wonder of life is beyond a price tag and so the mention of ‘riches’ mentioned by George’s brother Harry in one the final lines of the film, is certainly not meant a literal sense:

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!

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