It's a Wonderful Life (1947)

Undervalued on its initial release, this small-town drama has become a Christmas favourite, though its tearful affirmation is laced with darker emotions.

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“James Stewart embodies the hysterical energy of Capra’s quintessential American hero, thereby conveying the ambiguities of the American dream along with its promises.”
Charles Affron, St James Press International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1990

It’s Christmas, snow is falling, and James Stewart’s protagonist is contemplating suicide, driven to despair by financial misfortune. Those who know director Frank Capra’s film only by its reputation as a sentimental seasonal favourite are often taken aback by how unflinchingly it shows ever-amiable Stewart’s kindly local banker brought low by the machinations of a cruel world. True, the story involves a certain angelic intervention to show him that his travails have all been worthwhile, yet it’s only because this modern parable plumbs the depths so vividly that its vision of redemption proves so persuasive. Its enduring popularity may indeed derive from Capra’s insistence that friendship matters more than material gain, a telling message of solace in a secular capitalist society.

The setting of Joe Dante’s shocker Gremlins (1984) is a mischievous tribute to this film’s fictional Bedford Falls, while Scrooge (1951), starring Alastair Sim, shows a very different yuletide redemption.

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