If Five Easy Pieces was a great evocation of the downside of the American Way, then this is the great affirmation of it.
The life mentioned in the title is actually pretty dark and cruel at times - I mention this by way of contrast in what is generally considered to be a sentimental classic and one of Frank Capra's most beloved of films, and also arguably James Stewart's greatest role.
The darkness wasn't just confined to the screen: in the hardened post-war years of the 1940s, the American Dream was also the birth of film noir with established classics like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Killers, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Asphalt Jungle, which represented much more the darker side of human nature, so that by comparison to all these, It's a Wonderful Life seemed a little sentimental and old-fashioned, in keeping with the "Capra-corn" values of the 1930s.
James Stewart however, had also come out of World War II as a decorated bomber pilot, and was ready for a return to acting with something a little edgier from his wholesome, regular guy image, and this seemed the perfect niche between the two. His George Bailey is one of life's would-be crusaders, an often selfless champion for other people's welfare, whilst himself always striving to see the world and enjoy all its richness and adventure - the perennial Luke Skywalker or Dorothy figure always yearning to leave the farm, but in his case never able to.
Not that George is unhappy; certainly not when he has the welcome arms of Donna Reed to fall into as his childhood sweetheart Mary, who becomes his wife and mother of their four children. He also has a thriving community in his home town of Bedford Falls, such as taxi driver Ernie (Frank Faylen) and his cop pal Bert (Ward Bond) - apparently the inspiration for the Bert & Ernie double act on Sesame Street. There's also the local vamp Violet (Gloria Grahame in sultry form), and two elderly gents who are a primal influence of George's life; his staunchly upstanding father Peter (a great cameo by Samuel Hinds) and ageing drugstore boss Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner - who by coincidence or otherwise played Jesus in King of Kings some 20 years before), who in a fit of grief nearly prescribes the wrong pills to a customer and is only prevented from committing manslaughter by George's quick thinking. The film also has its incidental charms, such as the prom dance which suddenly turns into a swimming bath, and a great ad lib moment when one of Bailey's customers (during the Wall Street crash) asks for a very small amount of money so that the Building & Loan can stay in business - Stewart gives the actress an impromptu smacker of a kiss.
If there is a weakness to the characters drawn by Capra for me, it is the need to create a physical villain of the piece, in the shape of Lionel Barrymore's Henry Potter: no fault of the actor himself, brilliantly played in Barrymore's distinctive style, just Capra's notion that all the meanness and cynicism of the world had to have a human face, when the real villain of IAWL is Fate itself.
All these disparate elements that weave through the film, and the whole generational span of George Bailey's life, come to their head when his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses a fortune by accident, and George is the one to suffer. Driven to imminent bankruptcy and rapidly sinking into despair and misfortune, he feels his life has become one big waste, and desires to jump off the bridge into the river - until an eccentric old gent named Clarence (the splendid Henry Travers) who happens to be George's guardian angel, jumps in the river first because he knows George's selfless nature to help others.
It's sometimes said that the things we take most for granted are those that we miss so much when they're gone. That certainly applies to IAWL's sinister third act, where George's tempestuous wish that he had never been born is granted, and we see the town Bedford Falls would have/has become without him: a den of vice, misery and corruption - sadly, a slight reflection of the modern world today - now impertinently named Pottersville, with Violet now a prostitute, old man Gower a self-pitying drunkard, and George's brother Harry drowned as a child because George was previously there to pull him out of the lake. Strangest (and perhaps most unlikely) of the lot, lovely Mary is a bookish spinster.
In my view, with this far greater and more sophisticated nightmarish twist in the tale than Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the resultant elation of George when he wishes his life back again and rushes along the street wishing everyone Merry Christmas, is put into context. The finale where all the friends and relatives club together to raise funds to take him out of debt, is pure Capracorn, but beautifully mounted, and quite satisfying - when, once again, you understand the circumstances.
For many people It's a Wonderful Life was first experienced as a perennial favourite for American TV audiences every Christmas. My good fortune however was to see it for the first time in the cinema on a 1997 re-release. Coming out of the auditorium that afternoon left me with a special feeling of deep self-gratification, a sense that one's own achievements, no matter how small or insignificant, have value and enrich the world. And It's a Wonderful Life and an enriching film indeed!