‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ & ‘Roe v. Wade’: The Film Appealed to the Masses as Supreme Court Ruling Consigned a Generation to ‘Nonexistence’

COMMENTARY: How many George Baileys were to be scrubbed from history?

Donna Reed and James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.
Donna Reed and James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. (photo: Public Domain)

Why does a film made in 1946 still captivate the modern mind? 

How did a film that was a flop at the box office when released end up a seasonal fixture for so many people each Christmas? 

The film is, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life. The Frank Capra classic tells the story of George Bailey. One Christmas, as he reviews his life, Bailey considers suicide. Heavenly intervention prevents such a drastic action, and, helped by a new angelic friend named Clarence, Bailey reexamines his life through a different lens.

Some have dismissed the film as sentimental; many more, however, have cherished its message. It is a film that appears to speak to people both young and old but, in particular, to the middle-aged. Bailey, played by James Stewart, is an everyman, one who feels the best of his life has now passed and that he has achieved little. 

Paradoxically, despite the presence of such dark themes, the film is ultimately about hope in the face of the slings and arrows that assail us all. As a consequence, the film speaks to every generation — and no doubt shall continue to do so for many years to come. 

Much has been written about the movie’s message of hope. Much has rightly been made of the Catholic background of the film’s director, Frank Capra. In fact, the whole of Capra’s film corpus might be argued as a cinematic distillation of Catholic social teaching. The same themes recur: Small is beautiful; the beautiful is often right in front of us; we need each other; and, therefore, everyone is of value. Still, there is also a darkness to his work, present in It’s a Wonderful Life, too, if eventually dispelled by human kindness and goodness. 

The Second World War had just ended when the movie was released in 1946. The film must have seemed oddly out of sync with the postwar mood. In any event, It’s a Wonderful Life did not fare well at the box office. Even the film’s title seemed incongruous, given all that the world had just endured. One can imagine a cinema-going public wanted escapism but not a movie that seemed to suggest that all was well with the world: It was clear for many that their lives and their worlds had been turned upside down. Furthermore, the recently declared peace was uncertain: The Cold War began with no assurance that it would not suddenly turn very hot. 

Films from the postwar era, both in the United States and across Europe, were more somber in content than the movies that had gone before. There was a bleakness to the narratives and characters that populated the screen.  It was around this time, for example, that film noir was born. European cinema, in particular, embraced a new “realism,” using, sometimes out of necessity, actual streets rather than sets, natural light rather than the artificial light of studios. Especially in Italy, films took on a documentary air, blurring the line between reality and fantasy — both as a reaction to and a defense against what the Continent had endured for the last years. 

In this world, It’s a Wonderful Life looks anachronistic and the optimism of Capra about life and the human condition naïve.  

The film’s impact upon popular culture was to come decades after its initial release. The reason for this resurgence was human error. A clerical error in 1974 resulted in the copyright of It’s a Wonderful Life not being renewed. Perhaps that mistake tells us all we need to know about how the film was viewed nearly 30 years after its release, that is, because no one noticed the mistake at first. The movie was just one of a number of films from a different era in Hollywood, an era when movies were mass produced for the masses who frequently sought their recreation in the movie theaters of America. By 1974, that situation had radically altered: The masses had long since deserted movie theaters for the ease of watching television at home. 

It was this combination of circumstances — lack of copyright renewal and the omnipresent nature of television — that made It’s a Wonderful Life the much-loved classic it is today. Having dropped into the public domain, the movie was fair game for endless airings by television networks only too happy annually to screen this seasonal classic. Despite subsequent legal wrangling and attempts to reinstate the copyright, the film was to remain in the public domain until the 1990s. So, for 20 years, this 1946 film enjoyed a larger audience than it could ever have hoped for upon release. 

Thus began the mysterious afterlife of George Bailey and Clarence. Films date quickly, even classics. Eventually their attachment to a certain time can become part of their charm, but this takes time. The thing about It’s a Wonderful Life is it is essentially timeless. It is not situated in the world of 1946 in any recognisable sense. Instead, with the air of a fairy tale, the story could be set in any time and every time. So, in the case of Capra’s film, its newfound appreciation had little to do with period charm. 

Instead of looking to 1946 for clues as to why the film became so popular 30 years after its release, we should look to the world into which it reemerged in 1974. 

The year 1974 marks the end of a decade replete with disaster for the United States: One president had been murdered upon city streets; another had perished as a result of his own folly. There were constant riots at home and a savage war abroad. Corruption reigned; public morals appeared to have collapsed; assassination became ever more commonplace; pornography was legalized; and only months before, in 1973, the United States Supreme Court had determined that abortion was a right. In Hollywood during the years immediately prior to 1974, movies had exchanged restraint for licence. It seemed as if, all around, violence and decay stalked a nation, and its movie theaters continued to empty.

In many respects, therefore, the world into which It’s a Wonderful Life reemerged in 1974 was even more desperate than  in 1946. 

If nothing is without its providence, then the clerical error that propelled It’s a Wonderful Life into the public consciousness had a purpose. The film’s message was one of hope and faith. It came to a nation where many had lost faith in political leaders and who, on looking at the emerging world around them, saw little about which to be hopeful. In all our current woes with the pandemic, we forget that oftentimes the past years were far from serene. 1974 was the midway point in a global economic crisis, predicated by sharply rising oil prices. Rising too was inflation and unemployment in the United States and in Western Europe. An old economic system was crashing, but, as yet, few could discern what would replace it. Hope, whether in economies, national governments or even in international cooperation, was in short supply in 1974. 

In contrast, the message of It’s a Wonderful Life was consolingly local. It reminded us all that the value of a life is not dictated simply by reach in geographic terms. The small hometown that Bailey initially feels had stifled his talents is, by the end of the movie, perceived to be a great strength, not a constriction. The ordinary and local really are beautiful in this film. 

In a world where global solutions were being sought, often with devastating local implications, this message was as refreshing as it was welcome. 

That said, there is not enough in the movie’s celebration of localism to warrant the great popularity of the film.  What is also present in the movie’s frames, however, is the recognition that local communities are made up of individual people who belong to families and neighbourhoods. Here, there are no “masses” or “economic units.” The critique of the unrestrained free-market capitalists such as Mr. Potter, the film’s villain, and his ilk is not that they are capitalists but that they are solely interested in profit, not people. Potter has the same mindset toward people as a Communist Party official does, namely that they are “a mass” that needs to be  manipulated for economic or political profit.  

The real message of It’s a Wonderful Life is that each and every human being is of value: a value that is not determined by economic productivity or any other utilitarian measure. Nor is a human being to be valued by how much “one has achieved,” even if that value gauge is one’s own. The film shows Bailey’s realization, and by extension the audience, too, that all lives are valued because all lives are interrelated, and that all lives impact upon each other for good or ill — and this is affected just as much by absence as by agency.

That is the central theme of the film: If George Bailey had not lived, then many other events would never have taken place, and many other lives would have been impoverished as a result. 

It’s a Wonderful Life entered the public consciousness just as a Supreme Court ruling had consigned a generation to “nonexistence.” Perhaps that is why the film appeared again, this time to huge audiences on television networks across the land, implicitly asking viewers how many George Baileys were now to be scrubbed from history through Roe v. Wade