It’s A Wonderful Life is one of my all-time favorite movies, and the New York Times has a nice Critic’s Pick video with A. O. Scott talking about “the dark undercurrents of the holiday classic” that often go overlooked.
Back in 1996, when I was publishing my short-lived zine, zuzu’s petals — which, in a wonderful bit of circularity, played a significant role in my getting married! — I wrote a pretty cynical essay about why I loved the movie, not so much for its purportedly uplifting message, but rather for its “unintentionally subversive message”.
I’m not nearly as cynical now as I was back in ’96, but I think the underlying philosophy of what I wrote back then still holds true today when the movie is arguably as timely as its ever been. I saw it last winter for the first time in a few years — and the first time ever in a theater — at the IFC Center, and while my interpretation of it is probably slightly less cynical today, it still brought tears to my eyes.
How Wonderful Is It?
This essay originally appeared in zuzu’s petals, Autumn 1996.
It is considered by many to be one of the greatest American films ever made. It’s become a staple of Christmas television programming. It’s a celebration of “the worth…[and] viability of the individual.” –Frank Capra. It’s a Wonderful Life.
“Remember this: no man is a failure who has friends.” So ends the story of George Bailey, the everyman-hero of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic. Spanning twenty-six years from the end of World War I, through the Depression, to the end of World War II, Wonderful follows George’s life in his hometown of Bedford Falls as he watches his dreams fade away and questions the value of his existence.
The film opens with the voices of people praying George Bailey. “George is a good guy. Give him a break, God.” During a conference in heaven, we learn that George is contemplating suicide. Preparing to help him, his wingless guardian angel, Clarence, is given a look at his life.
George Bailey is a dreamer. He knows there is a world beyond his small town. He’s saved money for four years to send himself to college, watching as his friends finish and begin pursuing their dreams. On the verge of escaping the confines of Bedford Falls, he has his future planned out: “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy town off my feet and I’m going to see the world… Then I’m coming back here and go to college and see what they know…and then I’m going to build things.” Then, tragedy strikes. His father dies from a stroke. George gives up his trip to Europe, gives his college money to his younger brother, Harry, who’s life he’d saved years earlier, and remains in Bedford Falls to save his father’s business.
The Bailey Brothers Building and Loan is the workingman’s only hope of “satisfying a fundamental urge…to want his own roof and walls and fireplace.” The alternative is living in the overpriced slums of Henry F. Potter, “the richest and meanest man in the county.” George’s father and uncle have run the Building and Loan for twenty-five years without ever thinking of themselves. They made enough to support their families and took joy in the fact that they were able to help their fellow man achieve their dreams. George reluctantly continues the tradition, slowly letting his own dreams fade away.
On Christmas Eve, towards the end of World War II, tragedy strikes again. George’s life has settled into a routine. Settled down and married, he has four children and is a slave to the Building and Loan. His dreams of travel, fortune and fame are distant memories. Through an error by his adorably senile Uncle Billy, $8000 of the Building and Loan’s money is lost. George is frantic. Faced with the threat of scandal and jail-time, desperate for a solution, he turns to his lifelong nemesis, Mr. Potter. Potter has no sympathy. “Look at you. You used to be so cocky! You were going to go out and conquer the world! You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man?”
Dejected and defeated, George begins to contemplate suicide. He is stopped short by Clarence, his guardian angel, “second-class.” A simple man, Clarence shows George how wonderful his life has been. He shows him all of the people he has helped. From saving his brother’s life as a child to keeping the voracious Potter from completely overtaking Bedford Falls, George sees how much his life has meant to others. Refreshed, with a new appreciation of life and love, he returns to his family and an outpouring of love and support. George is saved, Clarence gets his wings and all is well in the town of Bedford Falls.
Amidst this noble message of hope and love, It’s a Wonderful Life bears an unintentionally subversive message. The irony of it is that all is not well. The happy ending is neither happy nor an ending. Nothing in George’s life has changed, only his perception of it. He’s fooled into accepting his lot in life by Clarence’s smoke and mirrors. One of the most beloved “feel-good” Christmas movies is not a celebration of the individual at all. It is an indictment of God.
Similar to the story of Job, who endured a multitude of tragedies (everything but his own death) as a result of an argument between God and Satan, George’s life is an example of the unimportance of the individual in God’s eyes. George’s happiness isn’t important. His place in the grand scheme of things is what counts. It doesn’t matter what his dreams and desires are. George Bailey’s purpose in life was to do for others.
George Bailey gave up every dream he ever had for the benefit of others. At one point, he criticizes his father’s devotion to the Building and Loan at the expense of his own children. “He never once thought of himself… He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me.” Later, Mr. Potter sums up George’s own life for him:
“George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He’s an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man – who hates his job – who hates the Building and Loan, almost as much as I do. A young man who has been dying to get out on his own since he was born. A young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he’s trapped. Yes, sir, trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic-eaters.”
It’s a miserable life that sees great potential dissolve into nothingness. This is exactly what happens to George. “George Geographic Explorer Bailey” becomes “old mossback George.” He never leaves Bedford Falls. He never explores the world. He never builds the skyscrapers and bridges of his youthful dreams. Instead, he makes a difference in other people’s lives. Frank Capra would have us believe that this is what is most important.
It was Thanksgiving of 1987 when I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life. I was barely eighteen, not quite six months out of high school and trying to figure out what to do with my life. I had already given up on college in favor of being a Jehovah’s Witness. Full of doubts and regrets, the story of George Bailey’s life made an immediate impression on me. Over the next two months, I watched it eight more times. Each time, I felt the despair of a life unlived, potential unfulfilled. That message has haunted me to this day. Whenever I’m depressed over life, looking for direction, for answers, I slide the tape into the VCR and sit back. I allow myself to be transported back to Bedford Falls. I get into George Bailey’s skin. I feel his pain; maybe I shed a tear… Then, I laugh at the very concept of the God of religion, and get on with my life.
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