Frank Capra ‘Earned His Wings’ With ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
Director’s name might not ring a bell with younger viewers, but his timeless movies are full of themes and plots close to his Catholic heart.
This December, millions of Americans once again will gather in front of their TVs to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. The poignant dramatization of an earnest, kindhearted small-town banker saved by a grandfatherly angel is a beloved staple of the Christmas season. On the surface, the 1946 film has all the trappings of a religious movie. It opens with a flurry of disembodied prayers heard in the heavens by celestial beings. “I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father.”
“Joseph, Jesus and Mary, help my friend, Mr. Bailey.”
“George is a good guy, God. Give him a break.”
Played wonderfully by Jimmy Stewart, George is falsely accused of misappropriating the funds of the “broken-down Building and Loan.” Drowning his sorrows in a bar, he prays desperately to God. That moment of pleading gets him, as he ruefully recounts, “a bust in the jaw.” He could not be more mistaken. To his rescue comes the white-haired Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, eager after hundreds of years to at last “get his wings.” The movie is celebrated for its wholesome virtues and old-fashioned American values. Bedford Falls is a stereotypical small town where people know one another and don’t lock their doors. Hard work enables you to buy a home, raise a family and build a community.
Virtue is ultimately rewarded, and when you are down and out, friends and family rally around you. Even on Christmas Eve. It’s not a film seen as steeped in religion or even as a morality tale. Instead, it’s the story of a decent man who loves his family and Bedford Falls as he faces off against a ruthless business tycoon, Mr. Henry Potter, “a warped, frustrated old man,” as George calls him. Clarence is not set forth as proof of God, but as a fanciful plot device in the drama of an honorable man driven to a suicide attempt before recognizing the value of his life. But the movie actually is steeped in spirituality.
It’s a Wonderful Life is not only a Christian film — it essentially unfolds a Catholic vision of life.
To appreciate the movie’s Catholicism, it helps to know the story of its director, Frank Capra, and his career in Hollywood.
Capra’s faith was hard-won. Born in 1897, he was a self-described “Christmas Catholic” as a younger man. His brother was a priest, but Capra felt he needed God only when he perceived he needed him. Early in his career, failing to establish himself, he knelt alone in a back pew of a cathedral. He was there “to remind the Almighty here was another sacred sparrow needing help,” as recalled in Catholic Digest’s “I Remember Frank Capra,” from January 1992, based on his autobiography. His career breakthrough came when he directed the highly successful It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, in 1934. Strangely, certainly to him, his triumph left him anxious as a director and hollowed out as a man. Success brought despair. He was lost and bereft. His conversion, as both an artist and as a person, came after he was told by an anonymous man, “The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired,” as he recounted years later in his autobiography (and as noted in the same article in Catholic Digest). “God gave you those talents. They are his gifts to you, to use for his purpose. When you don’t use the gifts God blesses you with, you are an offense to God and to humanity.”
If that sounds like a George Bailey-type revelation, well, Capra’s movies unspooled themes and plots close to his Catholic heart. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in 1936, Gary Cooper plays a small-town tuba player who outwits his enemies. It’s one of his many films that shows the power of goodness to change hearts and prompt conversion, according to film critic Maria Elena de las Carreras Kuntz.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in 1939, similarly depicts an idealistic young senator who overcomes villainous political operatives. In the climactic scene, Stewart, playing the fresh-faced senator, stages a one-man filibuster. Sweating and talking for 24 hours, pleading for justice and the American way, he reads from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the famous “love passage” from 1 Corinthians.
You Can’t Take It With You, in 1938, is an offbeat comedy about a free-spirited family threatened by a rapacious banker. The film closes with a reconciliation. The movie was a “golden opportunity to dramatize ‘Love Thy Neighbor,’” Capra said, as chronicled in Catholic Digest. “Christ’s spiritual law can be the most powerful sustaining force in anyone’s life.”
Meet John Doe, in 1941, is about a man (Cooper) down on his luck who is turned into a hero by an ambitious newspaperwoman and used as a pawn by big business. It’s a dark movie. Yet the power of faith is asserted. “The ‘meek can inherit the earth’ when John Does start loving their neighbor,” Doe says on a radio show during the film.
It’s a Wonderful Life is Capra’s deepest and most artistically satisfying expression of the Catholic faith. The movie opens with prayer, and an angel is a central character. More religion comes when Bedford Falls residents “wept and prayed” on V-E Day and “wept and prayed” on V-J Day. People in Bedford Falls do a lot of praying in Catholic-like churches with grand exteriors and sweeping interiors, too. Still, Capra doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve in his films. Art conveys truths and values through story. Meanings are embedded in characters and their choices, circumstances and crises.
Spiritual messages undergird It’s a Wonderful Life. Potter may not believe it, but the people of Bedford Falls, even and especially the lowly and humble, possess inherent dignity. Goodness transforms people and communities. Love, a gift freely given, graces our lives through the lives of others. God is present and active in our ordinary lives. He works through us.
An instrument of God, George Bailey’s desperate prayer is his “Gethsemane moment.” He finds his way to salvation only when he fully realizes his utter powerlessness. Capra knew what he was up to. He often said that the Sermon on the Mount drove his movies. “Movies should be a positive expression that there is hope, love, mercy, justice and charity,” he said in a 1960 interview.
It’s a Wonderful Life was a commercial and critical failure when it was released after World War II. Americans were in no mood for an uplifting parable. His masterpiece at last began to get its due in the late 1970s, when it entered the public domain, belonging to no one and, as it turned out, to everyone, as matters of faith do. The director’s film legacy continues to speak of God’s love, including in the very last scene of his great Christmas classic, highlighting the love of family and community — and angelic aid.
Jay Copp is the author of 150 People, Places and Things You Never Knew Were Catholic, published by OSV. This article was adapted from his book.