Seventy years after the making of the movie (which was originally a flop), our humanity still craves the six major messages from the iconic Frank Capra masterpiece.
01. It shows that every person matters
Until Clarence the angel shows him, George Bailey doesn’t know how many people he has impacted as he lives out his simple life in his hometown. Saving his brother’s life as a child ends up preventing hundreds of deaths during the war. A small, kind deed done for Violet, a young woman heading down the wrong path, changes the direction of her life for the better. George’s quiet and steady loyalty ripples out in ways he couldn’t have imagined. This shows that while we may never know the impact we have on others, what we do and how we treat them does have lasting impact. It shows our lives have purpose, even when that purpose is not obvious.
02. It strengthens our empathy muscles
Uncle Billy losing the money the Building and Loan needs to survive, and old Mr. Gower crying in distress. Rather than seeming dated, the issues they face feel current and relatable: struggling to support a family, dealing with a bully, immigrants striving for dignity and a safe place to live, grief, and interrupted dreams. These may be black and white images on a screen (or color if you like the colorized version!) but over time, the characters have become real people to us, and we empathize with them and their struggles.
03. It illustrates the power of community
The small loans and kindnesses George shows his customers during the Great Depression don’t seem like much, but they keep his neighbors afloat financially. Likewise, at the end of the movie when the community comes together to pray for George and offer their sometimes meager financial contributions to keep him out of jail, you can see how even small gestures can have a big impact. George Bailey felt desperate and believed he was alone, but his community showed him otherwise. We may not think we can do much to help a big world full of big problems, but we can lighten the load in small ways in our own schools, churches, and communities by noticing when a friend is sad, giving what we can, and turning toward, rather than away from, families in crisis.
04. It shows that God hears our cries for help
George Bailey thinks his life is beyond redemption and repair. He feels like a failure. In despair, he calls out to God: “God … God … dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God …” He wants to end his life, but God sends a hapless angel, Clarence, to his aid. God knows George well enough to know that his heart is so big that even in his own despair, he’ll try to help someone else—in this case keeping Clarence the angel from drowning. God heard George’s prayer. God knew George well enough to know exactly how to reach him in a personal way.
In filming the prayer scene, actor Jimmy Stewart told interviewer Richard H. Schneider that he was overwhelmed and the tears he shed were his own, not an act. “As I said those words, I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing,” Stewart once said. “This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer, the realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless, had reduced me to tears.”
05. It teaches patience
So much of what we watch is loud and fast and brash. Vines lasted six seconds, and sometimes our attention spans don’t seem much longer than that. At two hours and 15 minutes, It’s a Wonderful Life is a long movie. It unfolds over decades, and is character driven rather than action driven. Of course, not everyone will be able to sit through all of it, but by offering it up every year, with plenty of popcorn and cocoa, we can get to know the characters and invest in the messages of the movie.
06. It proves outside appearances are sometimes wrong
George Bailey’s drafty old house could use some work, and his career never took off the way he wanted, but at the end of the film he is proclaimed “The richest man in town!” We see that the trappings of what the world deems successful are not always in line with reality. They will recognize that Mr. Potter, with all his money and power, is dissatisfied and alone, while George Bailey has a wealth of love and support in his life.
The movie itself illustrates this by extension. When it was released in 1946, it lost hundreds of thousands of dollars at the box office and won no awards, passed over for an Oscar by a film called The Best Years of Our Lives. But 70 years later, It’s a Wonderful Life is still watched and loved by millions. What once seemed like a commercial failure is now a Hollywood phenomenon.
As Jimmy Stewart told Schneider, 40 years after the movie was made, the message responsible for its late-found success: “It’s simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and a selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life.”