In the final heartwarming scene of one of the most beloved holiday films, George Bailey, beaming with happiness and surrounded by family and friends, realizes it’s a wonderful life. If you only saw that last scene of the movie, you would miss the part where George, desperate and overwrought, stands on the edge of an icy bridge contemplating ending it all on Christmas Eve. Things aren’t always what they seem, especially during the holidays.
The film itself has a backstory that proves life doesn’t often come wrapped in a big shiny bow. The movie is based on a short story called The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern spent years trying to sell his story with no success. Eventually RKO Pictures bought the rights, but the project languished for a few more years. Producer and director Frank Capra came on board but had trouble finding stars who wanted to be in the movie. Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart ultimately took on the roles of Mary and George Bailey.
The film was released in December of 1946 with mixed reviews. It was considered a box-office flop that failed to recoup its cost of production. The film forced Capra to close his studio and nearly ended his directing career. To make matters worse, the Federal Bureau of Investigations flagged the film as Communist propaganda citing an unflattering portrayal of big-city bankers.
The film did garner five Academy Award nominations, but it didn’t win any. The movie remained relatively obscure until it began airing on television during the holidays in the 70s. It wasn’t until 1990 that The Library of Congress deemed the 45-year-old film culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.
I look forward to watching It’s a Wonderful Life with a box of tissues every holiday season, but I have to remind myself it’s only a movie. The picture-perfect New England town of Bedford Falls doesn’t exist. The movie was filmed in the summer on a backlot studio in the San Fernando Valley. The glistening snow was made from painted cornflakes that created its own share of filming issues.
The movie always reminds me it really is a wonderful life, but it isn’t perfect, particularly at this time of year. For some, jam-packed calendars are filled with extra demands of cooking, shopping, baking, decorating, cleaning, entertaining and traveling. For others, the season can be a lonely time that renews feelings of grief and sadness. Financial concerns are often magnified, and the era of COVID-19 brings a whole new set of worries.
Holiday movies, music, advertising, social media and our own expectations can set us up for some not so wonderful feelings like sadness, loneliness, stress and anxiety. It’s important to put the holidays in perspective and protect our mental health by being realistic, taking good care of ourselves, and reaching out for help if we need it.
I don’t know if you believe in angels, but George Bailey had one. Clarence Odbody was a goofy AS2 (Angel Second Class) who after 200 years had yet to earn his wings. This most unlikely angel showed George the value and beauty of his life. He gave George his copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with this inscription, “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings!” §
“Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
~ Clarence to George in It’s a Wonderful Life