The first time I saw It's a Wonderful Life, around 1986, I was alone at home and had never heard of the movie. It was depressing, long, and got more depressing as it went. I couldn't figure out where the story was going. But for some reason, I kept watching. This is not a wonderful life, I thought. George Bailey saw his dreams crushed, life was hard, and the one wealthy man in town was pure evil. And when the angel showed up, it got even worse. And poor Uncle Billy!
So evidently Uncle Billy isn’t allowed to just slightly gloat in this Wonderful Life universe – he can’t even walk away from a party without crashing into something and falling down – he’s a lovably disorganized, slightly kooky guy until he’s not so lovable – at least not to George Bailey anymore. So, every time I see Uncle Billy smile and fold that newspaper with the money inside and just hand it over to Mr. Potter I nearly scream. I scream thinking of myself, too. That moment of recognition in yourself – the nightmarish thought of committing some kind of easy blunder that results in consequences so dire, that you wish you’d never left the house that morning. Or that week, for that matter. The “what if?” spiral that leads to catastrophizing – a “what if?” that will become a grim alternate reality for George Bailey, when one wishes that, one not only never stepped out of the house, but never stepped outside for a week. In Bailey’s case, he wished he had never stepped into life.
An essay by Kim Morgan explains why I couldn't stop watching the movie all those years ago. Each of the residents of Bedford Falls are well-fleshed-out real people, with their hopes and dreams and quirks. They get kicked down a lot, but they're just doing the best they can. We can see ourselves in them. The theme for most of the film is that no good deed goes unpunished. No wonder the main character is on the verge of suicide. It's a Wonderful Life is an old fashioned horror film in that it instills a spirit of dread and despair in the viewer. Read how each character is shortchanged at Beverly Cinema. -via Metafilter