Conventional wisdom states that the worth of a piece of pop culture can be measured by the extent to which it has been parodied or referenced. I think John Updike said that, or maybe Barry Cryer. Or possibly I made it up, but it is nevertheless unquestionably true. You know a movie, television show or piece of music has tapped into the zeitgeist and elevated itself above the ephemeral when it is lampooned in an episode of The Simpsons or used to sell funny tasting beer. With the reasonable exception of A Christmas Carol, no piece of twee and enjoyable Christmas kitsch has wormed its way into the larger social consciousness like Frank Capra’s unmissable and unashamedly good-natured It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s a movie that has given birth to a time-hopping narrative device that has reappeared in dozens of subsequent movies and television shows including: Blackadder, Star Trek, Doctor Who, the third Santa Clause movie and even an episode of Rugrats. A device in which the protagonist witnesses a warped and distressing interpretation of a previously-familiar world now rendered hostile and strange by their own absence from it; a chance to see what the world would have been like had you never been born. Yes, it’s a riff on the aforementioned Dickens novel but its familiar nuances were refined here. Its heart-melting lack of cynicism and complete sense of joyfulness, dripping with Christmas cheer and goodwill to all men, including the arsehole who owns the bank, has inspired so many. Clips of it appear in Christmas perennials Home Alone and Gremlins and a ton of other television shows and movies as diverse as The Exorcist 3, Batman: The Animated Series and Trauma; and it gave birth to television’s first gay Muppet couple.
The story is refreshingly optimistic although it begins with a man on the brink of suicide on Christmas Eve. Under the gaze of a benevolent heavenly spirit, George Bailey (James Stewart) finds himself in no small amount of fiduciary trouble and on top of a bridge, about to end his troubles with a quick and devastating vertical trip to the frigid water below. Because of his previous compassion (it turns out he is the nicest man in the world), the celestial guardian summons a rubbish angel named Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) to talk him out of his suicide and convince him of his usefulness on earth. Before the intervention can take place, Clarence, and by extension the viewing audience, is given a potted history of George’s life in which is highlighted the numerous times his simple good nature and kindness has profoundly affected those around him for the positive. Repeatedly giving up on his dreams to travel the world, throughout the course of his life George prevents an accidental poisoning and his own brother’s drowning, props up his father’s struggling business and almost singlehandedly saves the town’s inhabitants from homelessness. After a farcical episode at the local bank, George, through no fault of his own, finds himself on the brink of financial ruin and possibly facing a significant prison term. Deciding that he is worth more dead than alive, he takes himself to a bridge outside town and it is at this point Clarence intervenes.
If this doesn’t sound particularly Christmassy, then don’t worry. Clarence convinces George of his usefulness by showing him how desperately poor his friends and families’ lives would have been had he never been born. George does not die and Clarence earns himself a promotion and a pair of angels’ wings that he had previously been lacking. The finale is so relentlessly jovial and uplifting that I refuse to believe that it can’t melt even the iciest of hearts. It’s easy to baulk at the jolliness of it all and it may not be arch or cool to like something this wholehearted, but It’s a Wonderful Life is so fantastically uplifting that I’ll take it over just about anything else Christmas cinema screens have to offer. You don’t see Kevin McAllister being referenced on Beavis and Butt-head, do you?