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Entries in It's a Wonderful Life [1946] (1)

Thursday
Dec262013

It's a Wonderful Life (2013)

A Stiff Shot of Baileys

In addition to eating, there are certain things one should not do right before bed: namely, watch It's a Wonderful Life--especially at the end of a twenty-hour day. I learned this the hard the other night, and awoke to find that neither the dehydration headache nor the sobbing fog had gone away. Much of this review was written by a basket case, who has no idea how he made it through Christmas Eve.

I guess that lands me in the perfect state of mind to talk about George Bailey (James Stewart), the put-upon hero of Frank Capra's ultimate holiday classic. Maybe you've never seen It's a Wonderful Life, or maybe you haven't seen it in awhile. Maybe, due to its ubiquity this time of year, you've written it off as sappy propaganda that deserves as much respect as singing Hallmark tchotchkes or the marketing team assigned to fruitcakes. In either case, it's time to give this grim tale of community and contentment a fair shake.

Was there something in the water in 1946 that made Bailey's struggle for greatness so unpalatable to audiences? The movie flopped on release, and only became a treasure in subsequent decades. Did the country's collective unconscious reject negativity in its popular entertainment, after coming off the bloody sequel to the war to end all wars? Indeed, despite its title and whimsical poster, It's a Wonderful Life is one of the heaviest movies in history--not necessarily thematically, but its story progression remains unmatched in grimness. George Bailey is physically incapable of leaving his depressed, little hometown of Bedford Falls, as if he were a man fitted with cement shoes at birth or trapped in a Twilight Zone episode.

A council of angels watches his every move, and on Christmas Eve, they deploy a man-cherub to steer him away from suicide. Clarence (Henry Travers), a deceased Brit who's waited over two hundred years for a chance to earn his wings, spends half the film watching George grow from an earnest, adventure-hearted kid (Robert J. Anderson) into a duty-bound finance man. George's albatross is a lifelong struggle to keep his family's savings and loan from the leathery clutches of town grinch Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).

He gives his college savings to little brother Harry (Todd Karns), who becomes a successful business analyst in New York, and then a decorated war pilot. He marries the prettiest girl in town, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), and then uses all of their honeymoon cash to save the S&L from a bank run. As George's friends become wealthy abroad, he becomes more and more ingrained in the fabric of the community--always cheerfully so, but with the heavy heart of a man who feels like he's betraying a greater destiny. 

This reluctant, stalwart integrity leads him to cover for his alcoholic Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) when he loses $8,000 on the day the bank examiner (Charles Halton) drops by for an audit. Desperate, George turns to Potter for help, and is coldly turned away. In his darkest moment, he reasons that his life insurance policy would more than cover the misplaced money, and provide some stability for his family--so he decides to throw himself off a bridge.

By now, you've probably figured out that George doesn't commit suicide. Clarence visits him in the flesh, and gives a guided tour of Bedford Falls in a warped, parallel reality that never knew the name "George Bailey". The town is quite different, with bars, gambling halls, and strip clubs lining the main drag, and many of George's dearest friends and family either dead or destitute. This waking nightmare forces George (and, by extension, us) to get out of his own head and realize what an impact one person can have on the wider world.

After wishing to re-join the living, George Bailey's seemingly one-sided existence comes to an end. In a final act of selflessness, he turns himself in and, smiling for a couple of reporters, announces, "Isn't it wonderful? I'm going to jail!". Moments later, the entire town makes a lump-sum repayment of decades of kindness by collecting cash from what seems like the entire population--minus Potter, naturally. Yes, the ending is happy and sappy, but it's also very effective. 

Because Capra and co-writers Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett so thoroughly drag their noble hero through the mud, it's impossible not to root for him. Like so many of us, George Bailey spends so much time inside his own head, wondering if he's doing the so-called "right thing" with his life, that he lets tremendous acts of generosity, courage, and love go unnoticed by his own ego. The film's greatest lesson is not to simply be thankful for what we have, but to be empowered by it.

Imagine how much more good George could have done in Bedford Falls had he not spent a lifetime being distracted by the desire to leave it. For all his evil machinations and abhorrent personality, Mr. Potter was right in his assessment of George as a bright, ambitious man who just needed a push in the right direction to accomplish his dreams (Potter's idea of the "right direction" is certainly debatable).

Yes, despite its reputation as perennial, feel-good fluff, It's a Wonderful Life is also a haunting admonition of a film, a cautionary tale about the dangers of tunnel-vision, self-pity, and obsessive blame. We are all George Bailey, in our quieter moments, staring wild-eyed over that bridge of overwhelming insecurity. It is the ultimate measure of ourselves as to whether or not we take the easy way out, or make the long, cold walk home to face the music and accept a roomful of hugs--be they from family, friends, or a universe we perhaps never knew was watching.