The only Yuletide favourite to pivot around an attempted suicide, Capra’s post-war fable is a fascinating melange of social and personal impulses and the questionable charms of home. James Stewart is impeccable as George Bailey, the Bedford Falls boy-next-door whose dreams are continually deferred by the demands of family and national upset: rather than exploring and building new worlds, he runs a building society, marries and raises children. Mapping his frustrations and joys onto the contours of recent US history, It’s a Wonderful Life puts individual and group interests in tension. Denied the opportunities for individualist enterprise that are the stock in trade of American cinematic heroism, George is pulled towards communal effort and self-effacement. Yet the film’s bravura fantasy sequence, imagining the hellishly licentious Bedford Falls that would exist without George, makes the grandest possible case for the importance and uniqueness of individual agency—Battleship Potemkin this ain’t. Funny, compelling and moving.
Cast and crew