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Is it still a wonderful life?

The values Frank Capra celebrated seem to be fading in our times

Christmas. A time for tradition. This meant burned turkey and overcooked Brussels sprouts when I was a kid. It involved racing downstairs in my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pyjamas to check if Santa had visited our house. Along with the rest of the country, the family would get together after Christmas Day dinner to watch a movie. Sometimes it was Home Alone, but usually, because it was my father’s favourite film, it was It’s a Wonderful Life.

As it passes its 75th anniversary, it seems no movie has improved more with the passage of time than It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s 1946 classic tells the story of George Bailey, a businessman pushed to the brink of suicide on Christmas Eve, only to be given a glimpse of what the world would look like without him. Once he learns his value to his community of Bedford Falls, he breaks out of his depression and returns to his family, where he realises that love and companionship are what make life truly wonderful.

Capra’s story is a paean to the virtues and rewards of small-town life. In contrast to the sprawling concrete jungles in eastern England where I grew up, he depicts a quiet and idyllic rural town where everyone knows you and your family. Doors left unlocked at night, and apple pie cooling on the windowsill. It is pure Americana, bringing to mind Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want painting or a Sherwood Anderson novel, dreaming of adventure, like George Willard, the ambitious protagonist in Winesburg, Ohio. The story of a man who sacrifices his share of the American dream in order to help others is both a powerful and sentimental portrait of American life. 

It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those rare, near-perfect movies that epitomises everything I love about classic cinema. A charming, heartfelt, innocent film from a different age that still has the power to make people laugh, cry, and cheer — it continues to inspire empathy and hope. The sheer joy as we watch George Bailey reunite with his family, given a second chance at life, is both poignant and heartwarming, played to perfection by Jimmy Stewart. The final scene where everyone joins in a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” in the family home is one of the most moving and powerful scenes of all Christmas movies. It’s hard not to feel better after watching it — not just about yourself, but about the world we share with everyone else. It restores your faith in humanity. Something I feel we are now beginning to lose.

As its popularity grew, It’s a Wonderful Life’s inspirational message about the true meaning of friendship, sacrifice and loyalty, taught the next generation about the importance of civic responsibility. 

We have long abandoned the message of family and communal spirit embodied in the film

We have long abandoned the message of family and communal spirit embodied in the film. While certainly not the only factor, a good indicator of family cohesion is marriage. The year It’s a Wonderful Life debuted, the annual U.S. marriage rate peaked at sixteen marriages per 1,000. By 2019, it was down to six per 1,000, the lowest lowest level ever recorded. The same is true here in Britain, where heterosexual marriage rates are the lowest since records began in 1862. 

Capra was a staunch advocate for traditional values. A republican and self described “Christmas Catholic,” Capra saw community, solidarity and selflessness as the most important aspects of American life. The post World War II suburbanisation of the working class eroded what was left of these values. Civic responsibility and community once flowed from the interaction of small, closely knit communities, such as Bedford Falls. 

This cinematic masterpiece never had to compete with the world of 21st century technology. Between 2018 and 2021, video on-demand subscriptions increased roughly a quarter: from 50 percent to 74 percent. With so many new providers entering the market, subscription-based services are buying up exclusive rights to shows in order to retain viewers. This includes It’s a Wonderful Life, now owned by NBC/Paramount. With everything split over different platforms, this ‘content fragmentation’ means you may find it difficult (or expensive) to experience this important piece of Americana.  

It’s a Wonderful Life is a film that must be seen by the whole family. It teaches children that even when things go wrong, good things can come from it. Alas, I fear it will continue to fall out of fashion. An inspirational story that says it is okay to give up your dreams and desires to become a family man is one we no longer find aspirational. In 1976 54 percent of families with children aged 8 to 17 watched TV together, by 1997 this had declined to 41 percent. 

According to a survey published in the Independent, British families spend just four hours of quality time together a week—that equates to 34 minutes a day.

We will never see a film like this again. It belongs to the bygone days of movie production, when concepts such as family and patriotism were important cultural values. A more romantic time. 

For decades, critics have dismissed it as nostalgic and schmaltzy. On its theatrical release, Bosley Crowther, writing in The New York Times, claimed its sentimental tone made it weak. I disagree. The film is a dark, yet uplifting story about a hero pushed to the brink of despair, time and time again sacrificing the American dream for family responsibility. To me, that proves that good old-fashioned optimism and passionate storytelling are timeless. 

The real question: how many of you will be streaming It’s a Wonderful Life on Amazon Prime? I probably won’t. It doesn’t feel right, frankly. It seems hypocritical to stream a film about a small town on an app run by a corporation that destroyed so many of our small towns.

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