A few weeks ago, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation was the subject of a "Shelf Life" column, and I was not convinced that it held up when I watched it again for the first time in probably 15 years. Suffice it to say that many readers disagreed – I'm still getting negative comments – but it made me both excited and reluctant to dive into It's a Wonderful Life, which is probably the holiday-movie genre's all-time most-beloved and venerated entry. (Personally, A Christmas Story is my favorite holiday film, but Frank Capra's black and white classic has the advantage of almost 40 years to develop a generation-spanning army of fans.)
Interestingly, I watched the film just a few years ago for the first time, and I didn't like it. For a guy who so often forewent his own plans and ambitions to help others, Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey was whiny and miserable and not always sympathetic (much less fun) to watch. Further, when Clarence the clumsy would-be angel shows him an alternate reality, I didn't quite get what he was supposed to learn by watching how the world he knew was different without him in it, especially since the bottom line seemed to be they're miserable, but he's dead, which certainly isn't any better for him either.
But acknowledging that my expectations were low going into another viewing of the film, it seemed like the time was right – not to mention the holiday itself – for a "Shelf Life" examining the merits and moviegoing value of It's a Wonderful Life.