dir. Frank Capra
"You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?"
Those of a certain age (old) are sure to remember a time when December meant being bombarded on a daily basis with Frank Capra's supposed paean to small town virtues It's a Wonderful Life. Although I used to complain about this movie being shown on every channel in damn near every language, truth is I always loved this flick. As I've mentioned before, this is one of the few movies that has consistently been able to make me cry over the years. [Crying at It's a Wonderful Life. Aren't I obvious.] When NBC obtained exclusive TV rights to Capra's movie in 1993, thereby ensuring that this movie would no longer be a ubiquitous TV fixture, my body went into shock. I didn't know how to cope. It just wasn't Christmas without the white noise of this movie in the background. So, even though I've seen It's a Wonderful Life more times than anyone needs to see any movie, I bought the DVD some years back just so I could play it (whether I was actually watching it or not) at regular intervals during December.
Although my love for this movie has been unwavering, I've found that as I've aged, the parts of the movie that affect me have changed. As a kid, I always shed a few tears during the hokey "No man is a failure who has friends" finale. [Capra's message here being, of course, that shut-ins should definitely off themselves.] As I've gotten older, however, the George-gets-robbed-of-his-dreams scenes have been more likely to affect me.
Because it's become such a Christmas classic, known mostly for the corny, yet effective, finale, people forget just how unrelentingly claustrophobic and dark the rest of the movie is. Leave out all that redemption shit and this movie is as bleak as any noir produced in the era. In Capra's film, a small town (here represented by Bedford Falls) is a suffocating vortex that saps the soul of even the biggest dreamer. It is impossible to escape such a place.
Every time it seems that George Bailey will achieve one of his goals, he becomes burdened with another chain around his neck. His dad dies and he gets saddled with managing the rinky dink building & Loan. His kid brother Harry gets married and accepts another job, ensuring that George will be stuck at his job for good, most likely to die there. He gets married and then, when kid after dream crushing kid is born, becomes doomed to spend the rest of his life in Bedford Falls.
A man who once spoke of going to College, traveling the world, and designing skyscrapers is now brought to the brink when his absent-minded Uncle misplaces a few thousand dollars. A man who once dreamed of conquering the world is now facing possible prison time for a screw-up employee's accidental malfeasance. More than anything, It's a Wonderful Life examines the way people change—the way they learn to deal with grown-up matters and forced responsibilities. Capra is interested in the ways in which people's outlooks and goals evolve ever so gradually as life presents them with predictable unpredictabilities. As people age, they must come to grips with the fact that all of life is filled with compromises; where they thought they would be and where they end up tend to be places far removed from each other. Folks must learn to be content to arrive at the better decision between the unwanted choices that life will present to them. When George can't find a way out of his criminal situation, his choices become prison and suicide.
It is here, of course, that the angel Clarence intervenes and shows that life would have been much worse had George Bailey never been born. I beg to differ.
I've always had some quibbles with Capra's view of life without George Bailey. When George decides to visit one of the homes in Bailey park, for instance, he instead finds a cemetery. That's right, the old Bedford Falls had no need for cemeteries; no one died there. It is only in Potterville that people can no longer cheat death.
In a world without George Bailey, Mr. Potter has taken control of the town, molding it into his image. Sure Potter is a soulless, banker scumbag. What George fails to realize, though (possibly because his outlook is clouded by his ego), is that unlike Bedford Falls, Potterville is quite a happening place. This town finally has some gambling and prostitution, not to mention more hot night spots than you can shake a stick at. Sure, after doling out an unending series of 50 cent back-alley BJ's in Potterville, Violet Bick has become a walking petri dish of VD; but no system is perfect.
The alternate reality thing that really pushes George over the edge, though, is the sight of his wife as a working girl. Clarence warns him before-hand that this will be too painful to see. Predictably, George reacts in horror to find out that, gasp, Mary is working at a library. Maybe it's because I've always had a thing for hot librarian types, but I fail to see anything wrong with this picture. Perhaps George would have preferred that Mary become a trophy wife for Sam "Hee Haw" Wainwright. "Well good for her. Sam really knows how to lay some fucking pipe." [To be fair, George is mostly upset in this scene because the woman with whom he built his life does not recognize him.]
Seldom mentioned elsewhere, but also important to remember is the emotional strain that George places on his daughter Zuzu's teacher. This thoughtful teacher gives Zuzu a flower as prize. And Just because the kid doesn't have enough sense to button her coat, getting herself a cold, the angry, crazed George treats the poorly paid teacher (and her husband) to a tongue lashing. [Tongue lashing, that sounds hot.] What with all the love that this town has heaped on George, it would not be surprising if it likewise ostracized this unfortunate teacher and her husband after he rightfully punched the dickish George. Sure, folks in a small town can band together to help friends in need, but they also have the ability to outcast those who cross them.
It's a Wonderful Life has more than earned its classic status. At this point, it's not so much a movie as it is a part of the nation's DNA. The finale may show us as we would like to see ourselves, the rest of the movie shows us as we are.