After reading Dan Green's post on It's a Wonderful Life, I had to respond (especially because I watched parts of it again on TV last night).
I too initially recoiled at the sentimentality and emotional manipulation of the ending the first time I saw it.
I once saw it with American Peace Corps volunteers in Albania near Christmas (right before a financial scandal was about to hit the country (see my travel essay on it ). These Peace Corps volunteers were going to help local banks develop sound credit policies; they admired the resourcefulness of George Bailey's banking procedures. On the other hand, other free market commentators have expressed admiration for Potters' company notwithstanding Potter's own corruption. On another night, I once gave a European girlfriend the choice of watching with me Wonderful Life or Casablanca. After I briefly described the plots of both films, she chose Casablanca over Wonderful Life, which (in retrospect) didn't portend well for the relationship itself (which was based more on romance than commitment). One sign a film has become a cultural icon is when memories about watching a film are more vivid than the film itself.
Watching random scenes today, i remember with fondness the "telephone kiss" scene, which stands in my mind as one of the great kisses in American cinema.
The film's quaintness arises from its fairy tale qualities (angels, etc), and the fact that the town's fate is portrayed as too dependent on do gooder George. The moralizing can appear heavy-handed and melodramatic. On the other hand, the decision NOT to let Potter's knowledge of the money's whereabouts be publicly exposed was a marvelous directorial decision. It conveys the idea that good doesn't always conquer evil but merely outlasts it. It causes the film to focus not on the injustice/evil question but the more interesting question of how life choices offer unexpected dividends. The credit/debit analogy no longer applies; George Bailey's can no longer estimate the cost of overcoming adversity. Because Bailey (and other mortals) don't possess this "divine calculator" to know the true chain of consequences, he can only let his choices be guided by instinct and personal values. And a desire to do the right thing.