It’s a Wonderful Life is a far bleaker entry than many of the other beloved films in the Christmas cinema canon. A Christmas Story is all about familial quirks, painted in Norman Rockwell hues. Even Die Hard never sees its everyman hero losing hope that he’ll save the day.
But Frank Capra’s inspiring masterpiece puts us — and its protagonist George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) — through an emotional wringer and to the very brink of death before delivering a happy ending. Before we are shown the reason we must hang on to hope, even when life seems far from wonderful, we follow George through a fierce storm of emotional upswings and free falls.
Through melodrama, Capra’s film communicates the intensity of our inner passions in a way that always rings true. Being something of a softie, it’s no surprise most of my favorite scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life are the ones that celebrate love.
Here are six of the best.
“I’ll Love You ‘Til the Day I Die”
A far more astute student of the human psyche than I once told me that our personalities are formed from a very early age. We become our true selves as children and in many ways the journey of life is about shedding the heartaches and illusions life deals us. What I love about this scene is how it introduces George and Mary pretty much as they’ll be throughout the story as they mature into adults. They’re both optimistic, innocent idealists. George dreams big and is driven by a thirst for adventure. But he sometimes misses the truth that’s right in front of him: that Mary is destined to be the great love of his life.
“It’s the Chance of a Lifetime”
There’s hope for George, of course. He’s a bright kid and eventually he stumbles upon the truth. The moment he tunes out the chatter of his racing thoughts and tunes into the steady voice of his heart, he realizes Mary is just as his mom described her earlier in the film. She’s the kind of girl that will help him find the answers.
“Show Me the Way”
George Bailey lives out loud. There’s usually absolutely no filter between what he’s feeling and what’s bursting out of him. That’s why his quiet prayer at Martini’s Bar is so powerful. The camera tracks dramatically in at the beginning of the shot, followed by a much softer zoom as he whispers a plea for any sign of hope the universe can give him.
“Good as New”
While George is not far from his absolute emotional low, the nurturing love he feels for his youngest child, Zuzu, proves to be a calm at the center of the storm. This tender scene pretty much sums up the essential truth of the film in a few seconds. Zuzu’s rose is losing its luster. But George clears away the dead petals, gently tucks them into his pocket, and deems the flower “good as new.” It will never be perfect again, but it’s more than good enough.
“Clarence Oddbody, AS2”
After plummeting into the abyss at the end of the film’s second act, the third opens with a much-needed breather. One of the lightest and funniest scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life comes when George meets his unlikely guardian angel (an angel second-class, to be precise),
‘The Richest Man in Town”
The sad reality is sometimes it’s a terrible life. There will be times when you feel lost, at the mercy of catastrophes beyond your control. But the ending of this cherished Hollywood fairy tale, at least in my experience, rings true. If we hold on to hope, do the best we can to show love and compassion to others, and reach out for a helping hand when we feel destitute, there’s always a reason to keep going. And the answer to your problem might present itself in the most surprising way.
If you’re having a tough time this holiday season, remember there’s always a reason to keep hope alive. And sometimes wishes do come true. Here’s wishing you a fantastic 2014 … and a wonderful life.