When it comes to terrifying movies you thought were heartwarming, It's A Wonderful Life is one of the darkest examples. While thought of as the delightful story of one kind soul's positive impact on a small town community, It's A Wonderful Life is horrifying if you pick apart the premise. Unanswered questions regarding how and why Clarence became a guardian angel turn this sentimental tearjerker into a film that could fall under the category of Lynchian Christmas movies.
Are you a fan of crushing existential dread in popular films? Well, you're in luck, because It's a Wonderful Life is one of the most popular movies of all time, despite its initially poor reviews, to director Frank Capra's dismay. And it leaves you with a lot of questions. What happened to Clarence before George Bailey? Why was a clock maker sent instead of a psychiatrist? Why does heaven seemed as flawed as any Earthly government system? These, and other questions, reveal that It's A Wonderful Life is deeply disturbing.
Most people think the message of It’s A Wonderful Life is that an individual’s life is inherently important. After all, one of the more memorable lines is, “No man is a failure who has friends.” However, George Bailey’s life isn’t exactly relatable to the average person.
George Bailey saved several lives before hitting puberty. He saved his brother Harry from drowning and stopped an unspecified number of children from being poisoned. As an adult, he becomes entirely responsible for preventing Mr. Potter’s bank from forming a monopoly in Bedford Falls that will trigger mass poverty and chaos. He also apparently has a mystical effect on the happiness of others as, in his absence, Nick the bartender becomes a terrible person and Ernie the cab driver's marriage fails.
It’s depressing to acknowledge, but the average person simply doesn't make as much of an impact as George. Most people’s absences will likely trigger fairly subtle changes to the world. If you’re going to make the point that all lives are worth living, don’t illustrate it via a larger-than-life epic hero.
Annie, the Bailey family's maid, is only one of two non-white characters in the film. Her most notable appearance comes when she sacrifices her life savings to George to help him pay off the $8,000 debt. While the moment may have been touching at the time, modern critics and audiences have pointed out Annie's character actually fulfills the racial stereotype of African Americans only existing to serve their white counterparts. The only other non-white character is an African American piano player shown in a bar scene, further illustrating the lack of diversity in Bedford Falls. And both of these characters could be easily removed without affecting the plot, which may have been done when the film was distributed in the south.
George and Mary’s first romantic night together wasn't actually romantic. When Mary’s clothes fall off and she’s forced to hide in the bushes, George does nothing but taunt her. When Mary becomes so frightened she threatens to call the police, George only laughs and informs her the police will be on his side.
Still, this somehow made such a positive impression on Mary she develops an obsession with George. Despite the fact she’s dating Sam Wainwright, she builds a virtual shrine to him in her home, which she proudly shows off when George visits her years after their terrifying first night of romance. During this visit, George is once again incredibly rude.
George is dismissive of Mary, rebuffs her attempts to make conversation, and storms out before returning to get his hat. The scene ends with him violently shaking Mary and declaring he’ll never get married before the two passionately kiss. We then cut to their wedding, but it’s hard to be enthusiastic about their nuptials when the relationship was built on violence and obsession.
Not only does God send George a subpar angel, where has he been up until this point in George's life? George Bailey consistently sacrifices his own happiness and dreams for the sake of those around him, and yet God seems relatively absent pre-Clarence. It is only when George is moments away from flinging himself off a bridge that God bothers to step in.
George has had some personal success, a wife and children, but he's been hit with an absolutely unreasonable amount of childhood trauma, suffering, and financial struggles. The guy can't seem to catch a break and God seems mostly unconcerned. Where was God when George was being slapped around by his drunken pharmacist boss or after Peter Bailey's stroke? If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, it seems like he would have done something a lot sooner.