Lovers of It's a Wonderful Life will all have favourite lines from the 1946 feelgood movie that rivals Dickens's A Christmas Carol – with which it shares a plot – as the main course in seasonal schmaltz. I relish the moment when Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey, shown by his guardian angel how dismal his little town would have been without him, asks about the fate of his wife Mary. "She's just about to close up the library!" reveals angel Clarence Odbody. Cue a shot of Donna Reed, a tragic spinster in this grim alternative world, complete with librarian's bun, specs and tweeds. The horror, the horror!
Beyond the howling stereotype, notice what else that scene reveals. The whole point of the angelic vision, of course, is to display to the suicidal George – the kindly building-society owner – how without him Bedford Falls would have lost its communitarian, co-operative heart and sunk into the harsh and lurid selfishness of "Pottersville". Guess what, though: Pottersville, that dystopian epitome of naked, neon-lit capitalism, still has a public library where "old maids" work. For director Frank Capra and his team, after 14 years of New Deal economics in the US and a global war that demanded huge collective sacrifices, even the free-market hell must have such amenities.
How the world has changed. In recognition of those transformations, it was reported this week that the planned sequel to It's a Wonderful Life will reverse the film's ethical polarities. In other words, the new version – if it ever gets made – will have George's wicked grandson learning how much better the town would have done without his miserable existence. It sounds at first like a seriously bad idea.
Yet you can see the logic of the switch. The sleazy and grasping coldness of Pottersville – named for the film's villain and George's would-be nemesis – violated the norms of a war-weary but cohesive America of 1946. A late bloomer, Capra's film lost half a million dollars on first release and took only one of the six Oscars for which it was nominated – for the artificial snow effects developed at RKO Studios. But it lost out at the Academy Awards to another film that turns around the search for social integration and togetherness: William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, about servicemen who return to a small town haunted by their wartime traumas. In 2015, so the projected sequel assumes, any place where communal values reign will represent a scarcely imaginable alternative society. Such a reversal would also point up the similarities with A Christmas Carol, where the "Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come" unveils to the terrified Scrooge the good riddance wished on him after his unmourned death.
The remake may never happen. Ironically, for a film about the long-term pay-off from generosity and unselfishness, It's a Wonderful Life has for decades been the focus of unseemly legal wrangles over copyright. In fact, it only took up residence as a Christmas favourite on TV in the 1970s and 1980s at a time when broadcasters thought that it had moved into the public domain. That belief has since been challenged several times. In the latest twist, Paramount Studios has just announced that, since it claims to own the rights, it will try to halt the sequel. Planned by Hummingbird Productions, It's a Wonderful Life: the Rest of the Story is supposed to star Karolyn Grimes – who played George's daughter Zuzu in the original – as the angel. Don't hold your breath, however. In Hollywood, the principles of Pottersville have always trumped those of Bedford Falls.