Rich Cohen, exploring the dark side of It's a Wonderful Life in Salon:
Here's my point: I do not think the hidden message vanishes when the movie goes Hollywood and happy. I believe the resolution of the darker movie is, in fact, still there, wrapped around the happy ending of the classic. Look again at the closing frames -- shots of Jimmy Stewart staring at his friends. In most, he's joyful. But in a few, he's terrified. As I said, this is a terrifying movie. An hour earlier George was ready to kill himself. He has now returned from a death experience. He was among the unborn, had crossed over like Dante's hero, had seen this world from beyond the veil. In those frames -- "The Night Journey of George Bailey" -- I don't think he's seeing the world that would exist had he never been born. I think he's seeing the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.
George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn't know it. Because he was seeing the world through his eyes -- not as it was, but as he was: honest and fair. But on "The Night Journey," George is nothing and nobody. When the angel took him out of his life, he took him out of his consciousness, out from behind his eyes. It was only then that he saw America. Bedford Falls was the fantasy. Pottersville is where we live. If you don't believe me, examine the dystopia of the Capra movie -- the nighttime world of neon bars and drunks and showgirl floozies. Does Bedford Falls feel more like the place you live, or does Pottersville? I live in a place that looks very much like Bedford Falls, but after 10 minutes in line at the bank or in the locker room where the squirts are changing for hockey I know I'm in Pottersville.
Update: Link to Salon article broke; fixed now. That publication used to be good about maintaining links; bummer.