The Wonderfulness of “It’s A Wonderful Life”

jamesstewart460This is my favorite Christmas movie.  So I’m a bit palled by recent articles that this is a dark film, or that George Bailey should never have been born.  Mainly, this is a response to a NYT article (and a short video commentary) about the “dark side” of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  (But you can also see the seething condescension for Capra’s human vision in this article, “It’s a Wonderful Lie”)

Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful Dreadful Life! by Wendell Jamieson revises, or attempts to revise the viewer’s reception of this movie, by making us concentrate on how miserable George’s life really was.

<“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.>

While these are George’s circumstances, this not the point of the movie.  Coming out in 1946, this movie exemplifies the self-sacrifice that many Americans made during the war and the depression to get their families through.  Undoubtedly it was a paean to all those people who had sacrificed what they wanted for what was good for the country.  George Bailey still stands as an exemplary “citizen” who sacrifices his dreams–which if you look at them closely are founded on the idea of escape, and a small opinion of his small town–to care for the people of his town.  This film, for 1946, has a strong inclusive argument for immigrants.  Potter hates them; Bailey wants to give them a chance.  Certainly Capra’s viewers would have seen many immigrants in the 30s and 40s struggling with them in hard times.

The movie is also about the power of one man to fight against the greed and power of another man.  Bailey and Potter are two sides of this coin of power: Potter would rule Bedford Falls without George in his way.  But to do something great requires sacrifice.

Sadly, Jamieson doesn’t see the point of self-sacrifice.  I admire George for giving away his Honeymoon money to help the town stay afloat.  I admire Mary Bailey for all the reasons that Jamieson discounts her.  He calls her “oppressively perfect.”  I’m not sure WHO she’s oppressing.  She wants George to stay at home and raise a family, sure.  But she’s also willing to make the sacrifices and understands George’s need to help others.  She’s also the force that goes door to door to help raise funds for him.

Bedford Falls is not perfect—but it’s not stultifying.  Certainly it is better than Pottersville.  Jamieson disagrees:

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking

He later makes the point that Pottersville would have been a “resort town” and would have survived the latest crashes on Wall Street. Resort town?  Who’s he kidding.  No one looked happy or having “fun times.”  No one is happy in this version; not Mary, not Violet, not Bert or Ernie.  No one has a better life in the de-Georged version.  I saw bars and dance halls, triple X movie theatres, and people were in these places not because they were happy–they were there to drown themselves.  It wasn’t excitement.  I saw chaos.  Everyone was angry, bitter, frightened.
Jamieson catalogues George’s set of woes as if he is making a criminal case against God himself (or fate):

Soon enough, though, the darkness sets in. George’s brother, Harry (Todd Karns), almost drowns in a childhood accident; Mr. Gower, a pharmacist, nearly poisons a sick child; and then George, a head taller than everyone else, becomes the pathetic older sibling creepily hanging around Harry’s high school graduation party. That night George humiliates his future wife, Mary (Donna Reed), by forcing her to hide behind a bush naked, and the evening ends with his father’s sudden death.

Okay, I have never thought of the flirting scene with Mary as a humiliating moment with Mary, but merely of two kids who are teasing each other.  I don’t know what lens Jamieson sees this movie, but it is a twisted one–bringing out the dark elements and calling them the point.

I admire this film because it reminds us to think of others.  It is a lesson to the viewer who might be a George–that they DO count, that they have made a difference–and a template for those who might know a George on how to be a friend in times of need.  Everyone at the end sacrifices their small needs for George.  While Jamieson makes the case that George would still have been libel for the stolen money—no one in the film has accused anyone yet.  While the bank examiner has a warrant for George’s arrest–the policeman rips it in two a the party.  If they supply the $8000 back, then the money never went missing–especially if the bank examiner and the police are conspirators on forgetting the whole thing.

George Bailey is canonized in the hearts of Americans because he does good for others for the sake of doing good.  While, yes, his human rage at having been denied so many things gets the better of him at the beginning, it’s all the more to remind us how fragile our saints can be–that George is not a God nor a robot, but a man who makes the better choices each time.  Until, he can’t do them any more.

Writing a story, an author is told to torture his main character.  Good plots do this well–by taking away what our characters hold dear.  “Wonderful Life” just follows that pattern–taking away from George until he is laid bare on the night when his life could be destroyed.  His miracle is less a miracle than a vision.  It works so well as a device because despite the hocus-pocus of Becoming Pottersville, the idea is something we can actually envision for ourselves.  Each of us can imagine our own Pottersville in the wake of our disappearance–and this can reassure us in our darkest times.  I think we have all been on the bridge, looking at that swirling water.  We may need a Clarence to point out our worth, a human Clarence, which requires us to step up.  But in the end “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about the value of community–and for all George’s sacrifices he gained a community that loved him.  Don’t discount this.  In our heady, Me-oriented societies–we’re losing the idea of our community.  And when we get to the bridge, I’m afraid we won’t have a Clarence, and we won’t have the vision to see that we made any difference in the lives of others if we don’t practice self-sacrifice.  I’m not one to talk–having not done much—but I am one to watch and learn from George Bailey.

3 thoughts on “The Wonderfulness of “It’s A Wonderful Life”

  1. Belinda December 21, 2008 / 9:59

    I agree. I think any criticism of George Bailey’s life comes from a 1980s-onwards (maybe even 1960s) point of view, where individualism is the primary mindset, and community and sacrifice are in the past. George Bailey actually leads a very ordinary life by 1940s standards, and that is the point of the entire film really, by showing how Mr Average actually contributes a whole lot to his world, however small it is.

    George may look like a martyr and exceedingly generous when viewed today, but that says more about how society has changed than it does about him and his life, in my view!

  2. Cady June 13, 2011 / 9:59

    Walking in the presence of giants here. Cool tnhinkig all around!

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