6 Degrees of Film: A short response to the “It’s a Wonderful Life” critics

Let me start with this: It’s a Wonderful Life is not a long-winded, melodramatic & manipulative tear-jerker.

There are life lessons to be found in Frank Capra’s entire body of work. And considering the times in which this film, It’s a Wonderful Life, was conceived and made, this movie stands the test of time. The movie was made after the country had been through a Great Depression followed by the second World War.  I have seen it at the movies and at home, and the film is not long-winded, but cathartic as we watch the action unfold.

The critic, Emily Strong from Salon, is bothered by the fact that this is an unabashedly Christian message of sacrifice. But if you are not religious or a Christian, the life lessons are still there.

The Character of George Bailey

Some of Capra’s work has been called “Capra-corn’ for a reason. There may be a hook or device that is too cute for some. However, if you are going to look at this story from the vantage point of a Morality Play, then the character of George Bailey is even more important as a hardened, beaten-down and cynical, broken man. That is where we see him when the action moves forward.

She complains about the ‘contrived and increasingly satirical levels of suffering’ that are inflicted upon George. And they only lead to two possible outcomes: Offering personal sacrifice or allowing people to suffer.

The Community of Friends came through for George

In her estimation, the outcome that saves George’s life is reached only because of his ‘constant selfless deeds.” The critic also overlooks one small factor. The ending of the film is predicated not simply on the selfless deeds and moral fortitude of the character, George Bailey, but the fact that the community raised the money to keep him out of jail. The rich friend was ready to send limitless supplies of cash to George, in order to help his friend in a jam. George’s actions helped to save the lives of hundreds who would have died because he saved his brother’s life as a child.

The Domino effect: How our lives can enrich others

These are not small issues to overlook. The point being, the domino effect can create ripples that transcend our own life and are even part of the balance of the Universe. If we allow it to go into the order of infinite possibilities that may be found, the ideas can play out in multiple scenarios. The point the film was making was about ways our lives can enrich others.

The Christian element is there for all to see. I’ve even written an article about it. However, the human element is even more to the point. And finally, the American element is something that is played out over the course of the film.

Don’t forget Pottersville!


Strong didn’t really mention Pottersville. And the idea that “The Little Guy,” the one Capra lifted up and extolled over the course of his career, is the front and center character of this movie. That is something that should be central to any analysis of this film.

Speaking of multiple universes and outcomes, the reality of a Pottersville is something that can be found in the current and global crisis of Income Inequality. We see this played out in ethical and moral outcries from millions of ordinary people across the planet. That is certainly not a contrived idea. The notion that those who have power can manipulate and control others is overlooked by Strong.   Subsequently, the idea of profiting from  other’s misery, as is apparent with the living conditions in the alternate reality of Pottersville, is also unmentioned. That small detail is never addressed by this Salon critic.

She is bothered by the emphasis on George Bailey’s “selflessness.” Yet George is shown as being cranky and disillusioned, and plainly bothered by his own stifling lifestyle.  He makes no bones of feeling ‘stuck’ with no escape. Many in years since this film was made, have felt trapped by bad marriages. They’ve been disillusioned through bad working conditions, and have felt obligated through family illness and loyalty that becomes stifling. There is no dearth of possibilities of where this plot can lead.

The Cockeyed Optimist in us all

And the very fact that so many have remade this classic film, and so many have identified with it, are signs that this film is going to outlive its critics. Naturally there is some schmaltz and contrived “Hollywood” trappings in this movie. However, the timeless appeal has roots in the universal nature of the triumph of the “Little Guy” and the American notion of rooting for the underdog. This is what carries the day in It’s a Wonderful Life. And I believe it’s partly because we see that the cockeyed optimist, innate in the American character, as an integral part of a film that is universally beloved.

Scroll to Top