Wednesday, December 06, 2006

It's a Wonderful Life Revisited

For many people, watching It's a Wonderful Life during Christmastime has become something of a Christmas tradition. I myself haven't watched the movie all the way through in years, but something hit me the other day, and so, thanks to Google Video, I was able to download a copy of the 1946 classic, which I watched last night. (Disclaimer: contrary to a popular legend, It's a Wonderful Life is NOT in the public domain. Although Google Video was offering the video for free in 2006, and was presumed to be doing so legally, the link has since been taken down.)

This movie is so steeped in American culture that even most people who've never seen the movie have some idea of the plot: George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) is about to commit suicide, and an angel is sent to save his life. In order to convince George that he is wrong in his belief that the world would be better off without him, the angel shows George just what the world would have been like if George had never been born. Eventually, George is convinced of just how much his life has been worth, and he chooses not to commit suicide.

I had a fairly good recollection of George's state of mind at the time the angel is sent to save him: the Bailey family Building and Loan is in dire straits. George's uncle has misplaced an important deposit, and George is accused of misapropriation of funds. Unable to collect the money, facing jail time, and possessing a $15,000 Life Insurance policy, George believes that he'll be worth more dead than alive and proceeds to a bridge, from which he intends to jump.

What I'd forgotten, and what particularly struck me during this viewing, was just how miserable George was throughout his life up to this pivotal moment. All his life, George has had dreams of leaving his "crummy little" home town of Bedford Falls to travel the world. He has ambitions of building great things and striking it rich. Unfortunately for George, every time he is just about to be able to leave, something happens. For example, on the night before George is to leave for college, George's father dies. Not only is George tied up for the next three months putting his father's affairs in order, but it soon becomes clear that the family Building and Loan will be shut down unless George himself agrees to take over.

It also suprised me just how much I identified with George's reasons for taking over the Building and Loan, rather than just letting it go. Bedford Falls is almost entirely owned by banker Henry Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore), a hard-bitten old man who has made his fortune on the backs of people trying to make a life for themselves. George knows that, without his family's Building and Loan, most people will never know the financial security that can come with owning one's own home, being forced to pay Potter's exhorbitant rental rates, never being able to scrape up more than the bare minimum to survive on. Although the monetary figures, being in keeping with the era, seem miniscule compared to the rates of today, this is a situation that is near to my own heart (in fact, I've written on the subject a number of times over the past couple of years). I wish there were more "Bailey Building and Loans" in today's world!

But again and again as I watched the movie yesterday, I was especially aware of the personal cost George Bailey had to pay for "doing the right thing." For another example, on the evening of George's wedding day, he discovers that the bank has closed down in the wake of a financial crisis. He then discovers that his uncle, in a state of panic, has likewise locked up the Building and Loan. Potter is circling like a vulture nearby, ready to pay Bailey patrons 50 cents on the dollar to snatch up their shares, enabling him to shut down his main competition. Bailey (at the suggestion of his new wife) is forced to use the $2,000 (a huge sum in that time) saved up for his honeymoon to give his patrons the money they need to get through the crisis, thereby preventing the Building and Loan from being shut down for good. It's a very memorable scene, and is a wonderful illustration of the kind of person George is. He consistently comes to the aid of others, despite the often considerable costs to himself.

In many ways, I identify with George Bailey. He is the kind of person I very much want to be like. But I grow weary of the financial frustration of living in Southern California, and often feel "trapped" in my current situation, much as Potter observes that Bailey feels "trapped" in Bedford Falls during another important scene. While I don't believe I could ever be described as suicidal, I find myself very much wishing that there was "another way" for people such as George to attend to the needs of others. While I haven't forgotten the ending to It's a Wonderful Life, where the people of Bedford Falls all gather together, pooling their resources to help George out of his situation, and he realizes just how "rich" he truly is in the love he has from his family and friends, I don't have much faith in similar community miracles happening today. Perhaps I have become too cynical. I very much want to believe in such miracles, much as I want to be the kind of selfless person that George Bailey often was. But that can be a pretty hard place to be....


  1. I think this is an interesting, thoughtful and personal post. Kudos. It also motivated me -- for the first time, ever! -- to watch "It's a Wonderful Life." In light of that, I can see a lot of the elements of your interpretation of the movie, but I wonder if there are "gray areas" -- places where the movies allows us to draw different conclusions.

    When Potter tells George that he, George, feels "trapped" in Bedford Falls, that might be a legitimate interpretation of George's situation. I wonder, though, whether Potter -- who takes something of a devil-character in the movie -- is not merely tempting George to discontent: Certainly, George doesn't *seem* trapped and unhappy, living with his family, honeymooning in an "unconventional" ... uh .. hotel, or enabling people to build (... a kind of Barnabas calling, I might suggest.)

    As such, I'm not sure if I would say that George is miserable throughout his life; I would, however, say, that when he is reminded -- by people or circumstances -- that his current happiness has had considerable trade-offs, he is as prone to discouragement, dissatisfaction and despising the good that is in his life as the rest of us are -- until he is reminded by his own incompetent angel that the happiness (his own and others") that he prizes is the direct result of the choices he has made.

    Now, I've only seen the movie once and may well have missed the real significance of the piece. Nor do I think big dreams are something to be discouraged. I just struck me that George's life might look either truly crummy or quite wonderful, depending on our personal hermeneutic.

    And here's your 2 cents for the day.

  2. Acknowledging right at the get-go that it's certainly possible to draw different conclusions to this (and probably any) movie....

    There's no question that Potter is tempting George, and probably making him even more unhappy than he already is. As I see it, though, Potter's attempt is nearly sucessful because there's so much truth to Potter's words. George has wanted all his life to get out of that town, and that's part of the reason he resisted *getting* married (and having a family), because he knew that would be one more thing that would keep him "trapped" in Bedford Falls. Although he loves his wife (and his family, we assume, although we actually get very little interaction with the kids, and much of that is during George's crisis, and so it's not really fair to point to a lot of that. The fact that he tends to Zuzu so affectionately in the midst of it all is worth noting, though), he had to give up his dream.

    Anyway, this is a movie that bears multiple viewing in any event. I don't think I'm too far off base in saying that George is generally miserable (with patches of happiness at his notable successes) until Clarence sets him straight. But that is just one interpretation.

    His life is a truly wonderful one, I actually don't argue against that. The distinction is that I don't think George himself recognizes this fact until he is given a new persective at the climax of the movie.

    For what it's worth (and I recognize that it's not the end-all-and-be-all), you might be interested in checking out the Wikipedia article on the movie (which I myself didn't consult until after this latest viewing).

  3. "Similar community miracles" didn't really happen back then, either, any more than corrupt senators used to try to kill themselves and then run onto the Senate floor screaming full confessions. Capra would lead his audiences through dark, depressingly frank places, and while he always gave us the happy ending, it was always slightly false; it was a wink at the audience, a reminder that if we want the happy endings in real life, we're going to have to make them ourselves.



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