And if James Stewart – an actor too easily pigeon-holed as being a charming but lightweight player – ever gave a more nuanced performance than his portrayal of George Bailey, then I don't know know of one, not even his benign, barnstorming performance as Jefferson Smith in Capra's Mr Smith Goes to Washington.
At the beginning of the film, Stewart is all wide-eyed optimism and energised hope; filled with a desire to shake off the dust of the archetypical American small town, Bedford Falls, and see the world. But as the story progresses, he registers disappointment and disillusionment not in a melodramatic way, but in his subtle – often unspoken – portrayal of a man forced to accept the burdens of duty, the need to trade-in his dreams in order to be able to stand by his family, friends and neighbours.
From that turning-point onward, Stewart shifts his performance through a state of happy resignation with his lot in life to one of uncontrolled anger and nihilistic despair. That is when the heartwarming, some might say hokey, portrayal of small people nobly and courageously living out their small lives against all odds takes a darkly dramatic turn and the hero becomes a haggard, worn-down figure of tragedy, ready to believe he would be better off dead.
What is, perhaps, most surprising about the film, and is evidence of Capra's genius as an auteur, is the shape of the narrative with two-thirds of the running-time devoted to establishing the characters – major and minor – and ensuring that we, as viewers, have an emotional investment in them all, so that, when George gets given the gift of being able to see what the world would have been like if he had never been born, we care not just about George's own reactions to the terrifying revelations, but also about all the other, by now loved, characters whose lives have been embittered, shriveled or destroyed.
I have praised Stewart, but it has also to be said that his central role is surrounded, supported and enhanced by his fellow players: Donna Reed as the ever loving, ever caring Mary and Lionel Barrymore, famous for his annual portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge on American radio, perfectly cast as that other "squeezing, grasping covetous old sinner", Henry Potter.
Then there's Thomas Mitchell as the absent minded Uncle Billy; Beulah Bondi as George's mother; H. B. Warner as the town druggist, Mr. Gower; and, of course, Henry Travers, as Clarence Oddbody the "angel second class" who is a heaven-sent emissary determined both to prevent George from committing suicide, helping him see – despite all the vagaries and setbacks – that it truly is a wonderful life, and, in so doing, win his wings.
With its visions of Past, Present and a shockingly revisionist glimpse into the future, along with the spirit of goodwill to all men,we are definitely within the territory of Charles Dickens territory "ghost story of Christmas".
A Christmas Carol has inspired – or, if you prefer, spawned – hundreds of derivatives, but none, in our time, has been more enduring or more deserving of celebration than It's A Wonderful Life.