Other than being a prerequisite of Christmas It’s A Wonderful Life exists (superficially, at least) as in indicator of changing opinions on films. I suppose Citizen Kane already has that laurel (but I prefer How Green Was My Valley); but on the other hand this Stewart piece is such an obvious victor among its nominees even if eventual winner The Best Years of Our Lives is not undeserving of the title – best. The thing is, as I simultaneously bemoan the loss of the film it’s not difficult to see why it didn’t win. It’s A Wonderful Life exists as a film so comfortable in its sentimentally (but never wallowing). Its affirmation of family values is sweet but never maudlin. I’m well aware that the AMPAS is a group of persons and not a single (ominous) entity, but I often wonder if they are fine with being overly mawkish but don’t give their laurels to those that tread the middle ground. It’s not that It’s A Wonderful Life is not brave enough, it’s just wise enough to realise that being overemotional would only undermine the potency of Jimmy’s story.
Capra could not have found someone more epitomic of the everyman than Jimmy Stewart. Stewart has always been able to deliver a cadence that makes him simultaneously admirable and relatable and he brings it to full use in It’s A Wonderful Life – most likely his most iconic role. Yet, the conceit of the common man undergoing an epiphany after a bout with a celestial being is not exactly new; although it was relatively original for the time. Unlike its contemporaries (Heaven Can Wait, or its original Here Comes Mr. Jordan) the usually suave angel is replaced with an intermediate and somewhat bumbling buffoon – Clarence. Like in the characters in the film, though, Clarence is a representation of a specific type explicated by the actors playing them. For example: the aforementioned everyman in Stewart, the assertive but still meek (paradoxical, of course) wife in Reed and the greedy villain (usually, a representation of old values). The thing is, the strength of It’s A Wonderful Life isn’t lost by the ostensible glossing of characters. It’s part of its charm.
It’s A Wonderful Life is an ensemble cast form all superficial representations, but for me the success of this film depends completely on Jimmy Stewart. The man is such a brilliant actor, and exudes such a goofy charm that you can’t help but root for him whatever he’s going through. When it all comes down to it, it’s Jimmy that makes It’s A Wonderful Life for me (although Donna's prettiness, doesn't hurt), and as that final scene ends and we see his upward wink at Clarence I can’t help but feel a sense of happiness. It’s not Jimmy I’m watching anymore, but George.