It’s Christmas, snow is falling, and James Stewart’s protagonist, driven to despair by financial misfortune, is contemplating taking his own life. An angel is sent from Heaven to help the desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed.
Those who know director Frank Capra’s film only by its reputation as a sentimental seasonal favourite are often taken aback by how unflinchingly it shows ever-amiable Stewart’s kindly local banker brought low by the machinations of a cruel world. True, the story involves a certain angelic intervention to show him that his travails have all been worthwhile, yet it’s only because this modern parable plumbs the depths so vividly that its vision of redemption proves so persuasive. Its enduring popularity may indeed derive from Capra’s insistence that friendship matters more than material gain, a telling message of solace in a secular capitalist society.
“James Stewart embodies the hysterical energy of Capra’s quintessential American hero, thereby conveying the ambiguities of the American dream along with its promises.” – Charles Affron, St James Press International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1990.
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