Depending on who you ask, It’s a Wonderful Life is either “a fanfare for the common man” or “one of the most profoundly pessimistic tales of human existence ever to achieve a lasting popularity” depending on who you ask. The movie emerged from relative obscurity after its initial box office failure in 1946 to become an American icon by the 1980s and remains popular to the present, ranking 20th on the American Film Institute’s most recent 100 greatest American films of all time industry poll. It’s even “Britain’s favourite Christmas film” according to the BBC. Though it might be past the peak of its 1970s-90s popularity, It’s a Wonderful Life remains important to a lot of people and is still the subject of an unusual amount of critical debate and re-evaluation.
“It’s a Wonderful Life is a dark, disturbing fable about greed, exploitation, misery, and disappointment,” said New York Times chief film critic A.O. Scott in 2008. Like many other critics since the film gained prominence, Scott praises the film and recommends it for reasons opposite to what Capra and Stewart intended, asserting that It’s a Wonderful Life is actually a statement about how bad things are for those who have the intellectual ability and inclination to see it. Because It’s a Wonderful Life engages views about the value of life and its relationship to society, its interpretation can act as a reflection of ideology. Those who by virtue of their place as critics must assert their tentative status as cultural/intellectual elites must show in their interpretation that their own ideology is indicative of the modern elite worldview.
While it has its roots in Marxist cultural criticism, this worldview is less prescriptive than descriptive. Intellectual ideological criticism of It’s a Wonderful Life demonstrates the use of cynical critical perspectives as a shibboleth – a token that demonstrates the critic’s place in this ideological trend among fellow intellectuals.
Frank Capra, the movie’s producer and director, didn’t intend It’s a Wonderful Life to be as ambiguous as it’s sometimes treated in interpretation: “I wanted it to reflect the compelling words of Fra Giovanni of nearly five centuries ago: ‘The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within reach, is joy. There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look!’” James Stewart, the star of the film whose persona is instrumental to the story, agreed: “The story of It’s a Wonderful Life was conceived by Frank Capra from a very simple phrase: no man is born to be a failure… Frank took the idea and worked with Hackett and Goodrich on the script, and created the story which is my favorite [movie].”
Capra and Stewart made It’s a Wonderful Life as their first project after their respective services in WWII. The film failed to catch on when released in December of 1946, losing money and fading into obscurity a few years later. The traditional explanation for the film’s failure is that it “didn’t match the post-Second World War mood,” but it’s difficult to determine why a film succeeds or fails. Its situation was not unlike another legendary film from a few years before, Citizen Kane. Both films had vague titles no one had heard before and marketing materials that failed to explain the movie. Consequentially, they had similar life cycles: despite warm criticism and a handful of Oscar nominations, “by the end of the year it had closed everywhere, not to be seen widely again in America till RKO sold its library to television.” The growth in popularity It’s a Wonderful Life experienced beginning in the 1960s is often attributed to the widespread showing of the film on television around Christmas after a clerical error led to its copyright to lapse and the film to fall into the public domain from 1974 to 1993, though this narrative may put too much weight on one factor.
“The week brings its expected cargo of holiday treasures, including two showings of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which may be the best Christmas picture ever made – although it plays just as well in July as December,” wrote Baltimore Sun film critic Stephen Hunter in a Christmas TV review in 1982. “The angel shows [George] the world as it would have been without him: and it’s a dark and cold and terrifying place, loveless and forlorn. This sequence is one of the great mise en scenes in American movies, and the movie is one of those rare films that aspires to inspire and succeeds.” That same year, the American Film Institute gave Capra its tenth annual Lifetime Achievement Award. Stewart and Capra were getting stacks of mail praising It’s a Wonderful Life.
In the critical and academic world, however, things were changing. “Capra’s endings are, outwardly, optimistic,” wrote Glenn Phelps in The Journal of American Studies in 1979. “Capra’s eye discloses a world in which… the forces of privilege, money, and political power have all of the tangible resources with which to keep the heroic individual in line. Capra draws his portrait of American society too well.” Critics were increasingly following an ideological approach to film criticism which, in the words of film/media and gender/sexuality studies scholar Maria Pramaggiore, argues that “…films that validate the American Dream discourage any analysis of the forces that work against class mobility…” and “treats the American Dream as a myth that disregards the limitations of a society that values competition more than communal responsibility.”
But ideological critics have trouble rejecting It’s a Wonderful Life outright – the craftmanship of the film makes that difficult for any devotee of the cinema. Even the infamous contrarian Pauline Kael of the New Yorker grouchily conceded that “In its own slurpy, bittersweet way, the picture is well done.” It’s a Wonderful Life must therefore be interpreted as a work that does not “validate the American Dream” if it is to be praised by these ideological critics. Their project is aided by the fact that movies are especially susceptible to ambiguity.
Movies include countless elements – such as actors, props, scenery, voices, music, and optical effects – often arranged in ambiguous ways. Any aspect of a given scene could be important, could be unimportant except to make the scene appear realistic, or could be relevant to an undercurrent of subtext to the scene or story. Directors often help the viewer out with techniques like a shallow depth-of-field, which focuses the camera and our attention on just one aspect of the scene. Critical moments of It’s a Wonderful Life, however, are shot in deep focus. With the wider depth-of-field deep focus photography provides, almost everything in the shot is in focus which, according to Hoi Lun Law at the University of Bristol, “requires us to work out what is significant.”
The exultant final scene of the movie can act as an example of this. We can ask of the scene, what is it that makes George and Mary so happy, the money or love of family and friends? Why does this scene say It’s a Wonderful Life? The camera doesn’t tell us. Selective focus, tighter shots, or more active editing could tell the audience what about the scene is most important, but Capra shows the scene from over George’s shoulder in a wide angle with both the people he loves and the growing pile of money in focus. While a more cynical critic might say the money is the important aspect of the scene, the casual viewer responds to the friends and family that gather and celebrate together.
Since non-academic viewers understand a work in emotional terms, their mood is the most explanatory variable of differences in their reception of an ambiguous work. They generally choose to focus on the elements of the film that elicit the strongest emotional connections. This mode of interpretation is behind the response to the film that fueled its rise in popular culture.
The traditional divide between high/elite and low/popular culture is gone. As Alex Ross at the New Yorker pointed out, “Opera, dance, poetry, and the literary novel are still called ‘elitist,’ despite the fact that the world’s real power has little use for them. The old hierarchy of high and low has become a sham: pop is the ruling party.” Popular audiences and the elites now view much of the same art and culture. The status of “cultural elite” is expressed not by viewing more sophisticated art, but by interpreting the same art in more sophisticated ways – which in practice means ways more reflective of elite ideology. The old hierarchy of cultural consumption has been displaced by a hierarchy of cultural perception. Critical writing for academics and journalists must then express the elite status of one’s perception: an ideological framework indicative of advanced education, a fashionable worldview, and elite ideology.
The pre-eminent framework of cynical intellectual ideology has its roots in the period around WWII, which is associated with the decline of progressive optimism among the elite with the death of Hegelianism and the discrediting of traditional Marxism. Hegel’s philosophy of history was dominant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and says that “world history… shows the development of consciousness on the part of spirit,” a progressive process toward a spiritual utopia. Traditional Marxism’s view of history is based on the Hegelian, but it holds that it’s not abstract concepts like spirit that progress step-by-step toward utopia, it’s economics. Each step is a revolution, and Capitalism is just an unpleasant step on the inevitable path to the Communism at the end of history. Cultural and intellectual developments are just side effects of that progression.
But in the decade after WWII it became apparent to many that the world was more complicated than anything Hegel’s model of dialectical progression could describe, and Marxist progressive optimism was replaced by post-Marxist cynicism. The “War to End All Wars” turned out to be just a prelude to more chaos and the Soviet Union failed to bring about Communist utopia. Intellectuals had to reckon with the possibility that human “progress” only amounted to more refined forms of cruelty and destruction. The influential German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss noted that “It has been said, not without reason, that Hegel’s rule over Germany came to an end only on the day Hitler came to power.”
One of the first in the new thread of cynical neo/post-Marxists was Theodor Adorno, a German philosopher and critic, along with his compatriots who formed the “Frankfurt School of Marxism” at the University of Columbia in New York after fleeing the Nazi regime. The Frankfurt School argued that culture was part of the structure of Capitalism, rather than a dependent part of the superstructure, as the “culture industry” is used by those in power to maintain control. A revolution in culture would have to accompany any economic revolution.
Adorno’s most famous essay, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” reads like a more cryptically worded conspiracy blog, interpreting all aspects of modern culture in the west as a tool for brainwashing the proletariat. His work leaves a deep impression of cynicism bordering on despair with modern life:
“The breaking down of individual resistance is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment. The enjoyment of violence suffered by the movie character turns into violence against the spectator, and distraction into exertion.”
An Adornoian approach to critical film interpretation would then focus on identifying how elements of the film serve as means of pacification, how the film “commodifies” culture and society, and how it replaces art with a commodity that is tantalizing but never true and satisfying. The work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault a few decades later added a unifying aspect to Adorno’s and other neo/post-Marxist approaches to cultural criticism.
For acolytes of Foucault, every aspect of life is to be understood as a node in a nexus of “power-knowledge,” serving to perpetuate structures of power while enslaved to structures of power at the same time. “Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.” Foucault gives critical interpretation the task of identifying all nodes of culture and expressive of and as the effects of “relations of power.”
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the influence of these relatively obscure thinkers on cultural analysis, having filtered through the levels of the academy to critics and journalists, is tremendous. Alex Ross at the New Yorker recently observed among his compatriots:
“Anyone who underwent a liberal-arts education in recent decades probably encountered the thorny theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research, better known as the Frankfurt School. Their minatory titles, filled with dark talk of “Negative Dialectics” and “One-Dimensional Man,” were once proudly displayed on college-dorm shelves as markers of seriousness…”
As Michel Foucault remains the most cited author in the humanities his ideas have a profound influence even on those who don’t directly study them. For example, the influence of Foucauldian analysis can be seen in a 2012 essay in which W. Andrew Ewell at Salon argued that an “economy of goodwill” is the mode through which power exerts itself in the world of It’s a Wonderful Life. “Suicide, George Bailey’s most willful attempt to leave Bedford Falls, leaves him even further indebted to the people trapping him there. Clarence shows George what life would be like if he’d never been born, and what George sees is not how much Bedford Falls owes him, but how much he owes Bedford Falls… Virtue in this scenario is not only not its own reward, it’s its own cost — a commodity that is both finite and fungible.” Virtue is both an exertion of power in the Foucauldian sense, but it is also “commodified” in the Adornoian sense. One of the Frankfurt School’s most enduring critiques of Capitalism and American society is that they “commodified” everything, even intangible things like knowledge and culture. This is the cynical mode of criticism Ewell emulates when he identifies Clarence helping George to win his wings as an expression of this economy of goodwill:
“When the time finally comes for someone to do for George as he’s done for everyone else, it’s an act motivated more by personal ambition than by goodwill. The angel Clarence — who “hasn’t got his wings yet” — is sent to Earth to save George from killing himself. But as naïve and kindhearted as Clarence may be, he’s also ambitious. His trip to Bedford Falls isn’t motivated merely by charity, but by promotion: “If I should accomplish this mission,” Clarence asks the senior angel, “might I perhaps win my wings? I’ve been waiting over 200 hundred years now, sir, and people are beginning to talk.” Read: What do I get if I save this guy?
“Indeed the pursuit of his “wings” becomes Clarence’s, and eventually one of the film’s, major preoccupations. At the end of the film, George’s daughter Zuzu famously pronounces, “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” By which we’re reminded that Clarence’s wings, like George’s charity, are a commodity, able to be exchanged (and existent only insomuch as they can be traded) for goods and services.”
Critiques like this go far beyond the usual problems of interpretation. They take what most viewers would clearly see as a joke intended to show Clarence’s inexperience as an angel and turn it into a node in a broad interpretive framework they impose on the work. Once this metanarrative framework is imposed on the movie it’s easy to find other aspects of the film that can be interpreted as part of this “economy of goodwill.”
It’s also because they read the film in Adornoian terms that many critics believe that non-critic viewers don’t notice that the film has dark moments. “How can a movie so full of pain and frustration be venerated as simply, glowingly jolly?” asked Frenando Croce at Slant. “Maybe it takes a filmmaker so fascinated with the American Dream to see how close it can be to a nightmare.” Wendell Jamieson at The New York Times agreed: “Lots of people love this movie of course. But I’m convinced it’s for the wrong reasons. Because to me ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is anything but a cheery holiday tale… ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people.”
More common than these more in-depth restructurings of the worldview of the film are the cynical jabs taken at various aspects of the story, or even its title. Essayist Dan Rodricks at The Baltimore Sun, for example, titled a 1990 article “It’s a Wonderful Life?” and refuted the title of the film with a long list of problems and inconveniences of modern life, like spilling M&Ms or someone taking his shopping cart. “‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ All Right – Until You Know the Rest of the Story,” wrote critic Bill Granger in the Chicago Tribune in 1988. The “rest of the story” was that Bedford Falls must have declined and gentrified since 1945. Gary Kimiya at Salon took possibly the most cynical perspective, inverting the story by asserting that in the alternate world George Bailey sees where he never lived, where “Potter has triumphed, and we are intended to shudder in horror at the sinful city he has spawned… There’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!” This, too, is less of a critical analysis and more of a long stretch for an obviously cynical jab, but it expresses the ideological sophistication and bona-fides of the author’s perspective on a popular work.
Pop is indeed the ruling party, as Alex Ross asserted, and since everyone is a potential consumer of popular entertainments – including widely venerated ones like It’s a Wonderful Life – interpretation and the ideology seen to influence it are the criteria for segregating high and low culture. If there is an “authentic” way to consume culture, it is that of the popular audience – those who direct their focus based on their own preferences and emotions, those for whom interpretation is a matter of individual choice. Focus is the key to interpretation, just as it is for the fictional George Bailey, whose change in focus changes how he interprets his own life. It’s only a wonderful life for those who choose to see it.
 Stephen Hunter, “At the Movies: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Tops Films of Good Cheer,” The Baltimore Sun, 19 December 1982; Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949 (Oxford University Press, 1998), 356; quoted in Marc Eliot, Jimmy Stewart: A Biography (New York: Harmony Books, 2006), 427.
 American Film Institute, “AFI’S 100 Years…100 Movies – 10th Anniversary Edition,” American Film Institute, 2007, Accessed 17 November 2021, https://www.afi.com/afis-100-years-100-movies-10th-anniversary-edition/.
 Jeanine Basinger and Leonard Maltin, The It’s a Wonderful Life Book (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), ix.
 James Stewart to Lonnie Schlein, 18 March 1982, James Stewart Papers, Box 26, Folder 4, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library.
 Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies – A Guide From A to Z (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984), 374.
 Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 575; The legend that It’s a Wonderful Life did not receive good reviews is “simply not true” according to Jeanine Basinger’s survey of the sources. See Basinger, The It’s a Wonderful Life Book, 54.
 It’s a Wonderful Life’s public domain status probably didn’t hurt the spread of the movie, but the revival was already ongoing at the time it fell into the public domain. The Google Books Ngram Viewer gives a lagging indicator of its popularity by counting the number of times its title is mentioned in all the books and articles they have indexed as a percentage of total words or phrases in all materials. Because it increases in writing about a film proceed increased viewing of a film, the numbers are a rough lagging indicator. But we can see from the data Google does have that the movie was already being written about in 1978 more than in 1947 after its release, though the uptick in interest had begun about a decade earlier. See Google Books Ngram Viewer, search for It’s a Wonderful Life (Google), accessed 19 November 2021, https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=It%27s+a+Wonderful+Life&year_start=1940&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3#.
 Glenn Alan Phelps, “The “Populist” Films of Frank Capra,” Journal of American Studies 13, no. 3 (December 1979): 381.
 Maria Pramaggoire and Tom Wallis, Film: A Critical Introduction (3E: Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2011), 310.
 Hoi Lun Law, Ambiguity and Film Criticism (Cham, CH: Springer International Publishing, 2021), 5.
 See Manny Farber, “Mugging Main Street – A Review of “It’s a Wonderful Life,”” The New Republic 6 January 1947, accessed 6 December 2021, https://newrepublic.com/article/98662/mugging-main-street-review-its-a-wonderful-life. In possibly the only period negative review of the film, Farber asserts that the money is the emotionally operative aspect of this scene: “Admirers of this honest, hard-working, self-sacrificing character Stewart has played since he left Princeton are going to be uneasy when they see Jimmy’s face light up like a Christmas tree at getting all this free dough.”
 Alex Ross, “The Naysayers,” The New Yorker (15 September 2014), Accessed 16 November https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/15/naysayers.
 G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, trans. Ruben Alvarado (Aalten, NL: Wordbridge, 2011), 58.
 Leo Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, trans. E. M. Sinclair (The University of Chicago Press, 1965), 2.
 Theodor W. Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (1947; New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 138-139.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (1976; New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 94.
 “Most cited authors of books in the humanities, 2007,” 26 March 2007, Accessed 20 November 2021, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/most-cited-authors-of-books-in-the-humanities-2007/405956.article?storyCode=405956.
 W. Andrew Ewell, ““It’s a Wonderful Life”: Occupy Bedford Falls!”, Salon, 8 December 2012, Accessed 20 November 2021, https://www.salon.com/2012/12/08/its_a_wonderful_life_occupy_bedford_falls/.
 Fernando F. Croce, “Review: It’s a Wonderful Life,” Slant, 16 November 2007, Accessed 20 November 2021, https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/its-a-wonderful-life/.
 Wendell Jamieson, “Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life,” The New York Times, 18 December 2018, Accessed 20 November 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/19/movies/19wond.html.
 Dan Rodricks, “It’s a Wonderful Life?”, The Baltimore Sun, 8 January 1990.
 Bill Granger, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” All Right-Until You Know the Rest of the Story,” Chicago Tribune, 24 January 1988.