I’m going to continue with the Christmas theme for just one more week, with another very popular story we tend to associate with the season (even though its Christmas setting is rather tangential to the story). Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life had a rather peculiar trajectory to achieving its current iconic status, from mixed reviews upon its initial release, to relative obscurity for decades, to a sudden revived interest when its lapsed copyright led to repeated airings on television in the 1980s. It’s been criticized of everything from Communist sympathies (because of its negative portrayal of the banking baron Mr. Potter) to unrealistic sentimentality to, on the other hand, bleak nihilism. Sheesh.
I love it, meanwhile. It’s the tale of a man who hits rock bottom, who is then offered a new perspective on his life (by supernatural means), and moves forward with renewed hope and appreciation. In this regard it’s very much like A Christmas Carol, but instead of a bitter misanthrope who needs to learn how to live his life better, it’s a dreamer who has given so much of his life to others, often at the expense of his own dreams. Rather than seeing where his life went wrong, he needs to see the true worth of all the sacrifices he’s made, and the joy he has brought to so many people. Like Dickens’s classic tale, the basic idea has been parodied in many mediums. There is something so evocative about a person viewing a world where they never existed, and thus realizing how much life is worth living.
The movie was based on a short story, “The Greatest Gift,” though the details of the protagonist’s life were expanded greatly beyond the original story. In a rather rare storytelling structure, the bulk of the film is exposition, a prolonged flashback within the frame story of a guardian angel learning about George Bailey, the man he has been assigned to save. This works primarily because each of the incidents within the flashback are miniature stories in their own right — George saving his little brother from drowning, or rescuing the pharmacist from drunkenly sending out poisoned medicine, or falling in love with Mary, or stepping in to save his father’s business instead of going to college.
We quickly recognize what sort of person George is. He has big aspirations for himself, but when it comes to a crisis, he will inevitably make the selfless choice. He has permanent hearing loss from saving his brother. He never gets to travel. He never works anywhere except the struggling Building and Loan. He doesn’t even get to go on his honeymoon. And this is generally where the nihilism argument comes along. What a bleak life, full of broken dreams and crushed hopes. George spends his life always settling for less, setting aside what he wants in favor of everyone else’s needs.
And it’s true that there is an inherent darkness in the story of a man who is seriously contemplating suicide. However, while George has periodic episodes of resentment and bitterness throughout the film, he’s generally a very upbeat, exuberant man. If you’re at all familiar with Frank Capra’s filmography, you’ll know that he doesn’t make relentlessly bleak movies. One of the reasons I enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life is because it’s so fun. There’s the scene when George and Mary dance backwards into a pool; there’s the happy rapport George has with just about every townsperson in Bedford Falls; there’s the glee at his war-hero brother’s homecoming without any trace of envy, even though his bad ear prevented George from serving in the war himself. George is not a generally sad person. He’s cheerful right up until the moment of crisis, when $8000 goes missing.
Of course, I don’t think it’s just the missing money that sends George to the brink. In moments of extreme fear and tension like this, it’s only natural for every old resentment to spring up. He sees a future of ruin, disgrace, possible imprisonment; and wonders if it was inevitable, if his whole life has been a slow-moving trainwreck leading up to this point. Potter puts the blunt, coldhearted thought into words — “You’re worth more dead than alive” but he’s only voicing what George’s darkest self has already been thinking.
The bleak tone of this suicidal moment is counterbalanced by the whimsical appearance of Clarence, a sort of angel-in-training. I suppose this why the film has its detractors from both angles — too dark, too lighthearted. Well, the balance works for me. We need a little humor and whimsy at this point in the tale. And how fitting that Clarence rescues George from the immediate crisis at the bridge by jumping into the water himself — knowing, as always, that George will make the selfless choice. (Indeed, in George’s distressed state, he might have briefly convinced himself that ending his life is the selfless choice for the well-being of others.) But it wasn’t enough merely to prevent George from drowning himself. He’s still in a dark place. Maybe he doesn’t really want to be dead, but maybe it would be better if he’d never been born.
So Clarence shows him. Oh, this part can be a little melodramatic. Pottersville is a nightmarish landscape, like something out of the Twilight Zone or the “Mirror, Mirror” episode of Star Trek. It does seem a bit of a stretch to imagine that one man could single-handedly prevent all of this. But that’s not really the issue, because for George, the most unsettling thing is finding himself a stranger among his home and loved ones. Nobody recognizes him. His familiar home is empty and abandoned. His wife screams when he tries to embrace her. And their children don’t even exist. Even if nothing else had changed about Bedford Falls, this alone might be enough for George to regain an appreciation for his life, to beg for the chance to live again.
What’s really remarkable about his return is that he’s back to his gleeful, exuberant, upbeat self even before the $8000 issue has been resolved. “Isn’t it wonderful; I’m going to jail!” he exclaims, because he’s reunited with his wife and children, they know him, and nothing can shake his happiness. Of course it’s all the more rewarding when we get to witness the outpouring of support from his friends and family. Justice in its more traditional sense never happens. No one learns that Potter has the money; he never gets the punishment he deserves. But we see a different kind of justice. After a lifetime of service and giving, George is the recipient of a mountain of generosity. It’s only natural for everyone to give a little back after he’s given them so much.
When his brother Harry calls him “The richest man in town” at the film’s end, it’s far more than a reference to the enormous pile of cash sitting in front of him. George will never be wealthy in the worldly sense. But he is surrounded by the richness of friendship and camaraderie, a town full of people who love him because of the good and caring man he his. Maybe it’s a sentimental story, but so what? It’s a good sentiment.