Gerard Baker calls It's a Wonderful Life "Frank Capra’s hymn to sentimentalism." Nonsense. Sentimentality is created through an excess of sentiment or feeling--in excess of what is warranted by the situation from which it arises--and It's a Wonderful Life is not excessive in any respect. It's a skillfully made film in which the strong feelings the film does evoke--but not until the very last moment--are manifestly appropriate and entirely well-earned. It is not only among Capra's least sentimental films--both Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (also great movies, nevertheless) come closer to sentimentality--but it is among the least blatantly sentimental of any of the classic Hollywood films, few of which really avoid sentimentality altogether or for very long.
I have always found it rather puzzling that It's a Wonderful Life became a Christmas-time perennial in the first place. What it has to say is actually quite un-American: wealth corrupts, the powerful are out to get you, ambition is overrated, the "American Dream" itself only leads to nihilism and despair if pursued to its logical conclusions. Some say that the character of Mr. Potter is overdrawn, a caricature of the rapacious businessman (compensating for his own deficiencies), but I don't think so at all. He's monomaniacal, indifferent to the consequences of his actions for other people, dedicated to the proposition that owning everything and operating it all according to his own notions of efficiency and bottom-line results are what life is all about. In other words, he's everything the modern CEO has proven himself to be.
Sam Wainwright, the film's "entrepreneurial" character, comes off no better. He's every bit the braying jackass his constant "hee-haws" suggest he is. Something like Sam's life, escaping Bedford Falls, "doing things," making his mark on the world through his acquired skills, is what George Bailey dreams for himself, but of course the film shows that these are not things worth aspiring to. They only separate you from life as it's really lived, blind you to your own real talents, to your own humanity, and the film finally suggests that George is well rid of them. How many Yale undergrads are going to benefit from this advice?
It's a Wonderful Life is one of the few Hollywood films, maybe the only one, to show its protagonist going through an authentic existential crisis. He's forced not just to think about what his own life has been about, but he confronts the prospect of annihilation itself, literally looks into the void of his own nonexistence. The extreme close-up of Jimmy Stewart's terrified face, looking in utter despair from side to side after his own mother has denied him, as if he's looking for some other universe to inhabit than the nightmarish one in which he's currently trapped, is, to me, one of the most frightening and truly emotion-provoking images I think I've ever seen. This is hell indeed.
George Bailey is authentically plunged, through circumstances not of his own making, into an episode of despair so profound he seriously considers suicide but after pondering the implications and the possible consequences of his act (and finally this is what the encounter with his guardian angel and the subsequent nightmare vision of Bedford Falls, though rendered symbolically as narrative, really comes down to) decides to try living again. This is sentimentality? How many of us can really say that?
It has become more fashionable to deride Frank Capra for his sentimentality, even his hypocrisy, since the publication of Joseph McBride's Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success. This is a dreadfully-written, -researched, and -argued book that makes much of the fact that Capra came from a bourgeoise background and was a registered Republican. It becomes the main prop for the book's argument about Capra, that he and his films were not what they seemed, were instead simply opportunistic excuse for Capra to become famous while making movies whose "progressive" themes he didn't really believe in. This is again all nonsense. Nobody who bothers to examine Capra's body of work could say the best of his films are anything but superbly made comedies of American life that could not have the impact they do if Capra hadn't believed strenuously in his own artistic integrity. Ignore anyone who comes speaking of "Capra-corn."
I first saw It's a Wonderful Life when I was helping to teach a large undergraduate film class at a Midwestern university in the early-to-mid 1980s. We sometimes forget that this film has been a "classic" Christmas movie only for the last 15 years or so. Before that it was almost forgotten. I think it was forgotten because it is indeed a disturbing film that seemed both at odds with its Christmas setting and not really consistent with our notions of what Hollywood studio films are like. I can't really say why it was embraced in the superficial and ill-informed way characterized by Baker's remarks, but I do recall that when I watched it for the first time I was overwhelmed by it. It may have been the first movie I had ever seen that did truly earn its happy ending. I also recall that the students in the class seemed genuinely moved by it. Unfortunately, while some people may still claim to be moved by it, most likely it is no longer possible for their response to be genuine.