Donald Clarke: It’s a Wonderful Life has been dogging my nightmares since my youth

Alternative reality is so wretched it’s a wonder anyone hangs around for the happy ending

Cough-cough years ago, when I was a cherry-cheeked child, I saw a few films that utterly terrified me. One was the 1958 version of The Fly. The late scene in which a spider terrorises the regular-sized fly with the tiny man’s head still causes me to swing bolt upright in the middle of the night. “Help me! Help me!” We can take the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a given. I would describe the final scene in Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley, but, as Guillermo del Toro’s lavish new version is nearly with us, that would constitute an unfair spoiler.

The name of another petrifying film eluded the young me for a few years. The relevant section found the hero cast into an appalling alternative reality where no friends or family acknowledged his existence. More distraught than the minute head in The Fly, he sought out his now miserable wife and now impoverished mother only to be rebuffed in hostile terms. A former employer has been imprisoned for manslaughter. His kindly uncle was sent to a mental institution. His brother is dead, as are all the people that character saved on a troop transporter during the war. Dostoevsky would have struggled to construct a more disturbing nightmare.

You know where I'm going with this. Five years or so later, I saw It's a Wonderful Life again. The warm previews (in this newspaper, I suspect) did not prepare me for what I was about to endure. "Oh, my God! This 'heart-warming drama' is that terrifying thing that's been dogging my nightmares since nineteen-cough-cough," I didn't exactly say. The man was Jimmy Stewart and he looked even more distressed than I remembered. No wonder this thing was so obscure. It's a masterpiece, but the alternative reality is so wretched it's a wonder anyone hangs around for the happy ending that follows.

For many, many decades, any old rubbish with the odd sleigh bell here or a few flakes of snow there could become a Christmas staple

And yet. There is a heart-warming Christmas story here. I am not talking about George Bailey’s hard-won appreciation of his own worth. There is another tale about how, once in a while, a deserving work overcomes initial resistance to win the public’s favour.


That is not always how it works at Christmas. For many, many decades, any old rubbish with the odd sleigh bell here or a few flakes of snow there could become a Christmas staple. Nick Hornby was onto something when he had the hero of About a Boy – played memorably by Hugh Grant in the 2002 film – finance his lazy lifestyle on a saccharine Christmas hit written by his father years earlier. The supermarket aisles are currently echoing with seasonal effluent by artists whose other, better songs rarely get airtime (you know who we mean). Truly wretched films such as Deck the Halls, Jingle all the Way and Last Christmas turn up on the Christmas schedules. I have even heard Christmas With the Kranks, a 2004 outrage I rated among the five worst films of its decade, being recommended as a seasonal treat. Argh!

For the next few decades it retained a respectable reputation among Capra enthusiasts

Where was I? Oh yes. It’s a Wonderful Life is among a small selection of films that, only modestly successful on release, went on to become cherished classics. The initial reviews in 1946 may not have been quite so terrible as Capra later remembered, but we could certainly get away with calling them “mixed”. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times had some measured praise, but felt “the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it – its illusory concept of life”. The film managed to take more than fellow Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street at the year’s box office, but still lost over half a million dollars for RKO Radio Pictures. It did decently at the Academy Awards, scoring five nominations, including best picture, in the year The Best Years of Our Lives won, but could not secure a win.

Which is to say that, though It's a Wonderful Life was not reviled, it was not any sort of phenomenon either. For the next few decades it retained a respectable reputation among Capra enthusiasts. Most lists of the director's best work would find space for it alongside Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It Happened One Night. Few would have placed it at the top. It had no "iconic" status (as we then didn't say).

A technical kerfuffle contributed to the shift in reputation. In 1974, due to a clerical error, the film's copyright was not properly reviewed and – the legal side of this is still confused – it fast became a staple on American TV stations. It was only in the 1980s, a good while after it first scared this writer, that It's a Wonderful Life properly wormed its way into the public psyche. That rising place was acknowledged by Joe Dante when he featured it prominently in his brilliant 1984 horror-comedy Gremlins.

It has never gone away. Every time it plays an angel gets its wings. Merry Christmas, everyone. Some true stories do have happy endings.

It’s a Wonderful Life is on Channel 4 at 2pm on Christmas Eve (and other places too)