George Bailey, a young family man who has spent his life serving others, finds himself on a bridge outside his hometown of Bedford Falls contemplating suicide. He faces financial ruin because of one silly mistake, something that isn’t even his fault, and his world appears to be falling apart. Suddenly he sees someone fall into the river and he jumps in to save them. That someone turns out to be Clarence, an angel (second class) sent to earth to help George at his hour of need. When George wishes he had never been born, Clarence makes that wish come true and takes him on a tour of Bedford Falls, a very different town without the influence of George Bailey.
So goes the basic premise of It’s A Wonderful Life, one of the most treasured films in cinema history. To the outsider, or unfamiliar, it may seem a little trite or sentimental, but that would be a mistake. Frank Capra’s classic movie is actually quite dark and sinister, many people forget the depths of despair that George Bailey is driven to, but it needs to be bleak and melancholy as that makes the final redemption all the more striking, all the more effective.
When first released in 1946 it was a commercial flop, losing money for the studio and the CIA considered it a subervisive, pro-Communist movie. As a result it wallowed in obscurity for many years. Its enduring legacy is actually down to an administrative error. The movie was accidentally allowed to fall out of copyright which meant that American TV stations could broadcast it for free and as a result it became a staple of Christmas viewing during the 60s and 70s, elevating it to classic status. It now ranks as #1 in the American Film Institute’s list of Most Inspirational Films.