Earlier this week, Star Tribune theater critic Chris Hewitt paid a charming and informative tribute to the 75th anniversary of the favorite Christmas movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” (“It’s a” Wonderful “Birthday,” 20 December).
Don’t blame Hewitt’s beautiful play that made me dig into a story of my own. I am getting easier and easier to provoke this way.
Over 30 years ago, I posted an essay on director Frank Capra’s ubiquitous holiday classic for another (long-smoky) post. Like the film, my analysis is now ancient – but it hasn’t changed much more than the film itself. I bring you a slightly updated version here as another quaint tradition of the season.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” is a pretty serious movie, at least as the so-called “wellness” movies say. It is, in fact, one of the true philosophical achievements of Hollywood. As such, it is one of the most widely circulated philosophical works ever produced, almost rivaling the story it is rather shamelessly modeled on: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.
Dickens’ masterpiece is one of those artistic treasures that have become such a solid part of the psychology of our culture that it seems its plot and characters have been around forever. It’s hard to imagine that long ago a prolific storyteller simply made it up.
Either way, “It’s A Wonderful Life” hero George Bailey is the modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s not a rare mistake these days to assume that the film’s evil banker, Mr. Potter (so brilliantly played by Lionel Barrymore), is the tale’s “Scrooge-style” character.
But while neither Capra nor Dickens were an uncritical admirer of capitalism, both had themes deeper than the bashing of bankers in mind.
“A Christmas Carol” was a protest against greed and greed, vices that particularly afflict impoverished societies. “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a protest against a vice that is particularly rampant in wealthy societies. This vice is self-pity.
George Bailey’s story begins as he is on the verge of suicide, partly because of an impending crisis, but mostly because he feels he has led a worthless life, running a business. threadbare family in the “shabby little town” of Bedford Falls. But in his hour of need, on Christmas Eve, George, like Scrooge, is visited by a spirit.
A clumsy Guardian Angel (Second Class) shows George that the world would be a sadder place without him, and that he would be sorely missed by what was in fact “a wonderful life”.
Still, it’s not a conventional happy-forever fantasy. As consoling as it is to see George’s jovial neighbors parading through his living room to save him from bankruptcy, the fact remains that he will never fulfill his heart’s desire – to travel the world and become a great builder. . He will continue to run his still struggling finance company building small homes in a small community filled with small ambitions.
And it’s right here that we detect the bittersweet aftertaste that is the true signature flavor of the Christmas season. It is a season made, it seems, to despair lost souls in need of redemption. Besides George and Scrooge, think of the Grinch, Charlie Brown and his skinny tree, even Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” and his desperate air rifle dreams.
All these stray lambs have been found. But the mood of the season remains oddly shady, and that has a lesson to teach, especially in our time. We feel a little sorry for George Bailey when he finally resigns himself to an ordinary life in a way we don’t regret for Scrooge when he becomes a mad spender.
Like Scrooge, George learns something from his Christmas Eve visit that is especially difficult and important to learn in our special times, our times both difficult and pampered. He learns that the big obstacle to happiness in life is not disappointment, but ingratitude. He learns that he wears a heavy chain forged of pity and resentment, just as heavy as the chain that Scrooge forged out of cruelty and neglect.
George’s real moment of freedom comes before the celebration is over, when he bursts into the house, sees the sheriff waiting for him and yells, “I’m going to jail, isn’t that wonderful!”
He is a liberated man.
As Hewitt noted, people are often surprised these days to learn that when it first appeared in 1946, “It’s A Wonderful Life” was not very popular. For an audience that had just lived through a world war, and before that a depression, the suffering of George Bailey simply made no sense. It was as American life became more comfortable for most that we found it easier to identify with this gloomy hero.
Consider the life of George Bailey: he grew up in a happy and loving family; inherits a family business that has lasted for decades; marries the prettiest woman in town (or damn near any town), who gives her four angelic children and seems to adore the hesitant titty. He is loved by everyone he knows (not including Mr. Potter).
Find? It’s a wonderful life, and yet George feels terribly sorry for himself, much like the rest of us. So maybe we’re all just as dumb as him. Roll the credits.
It is not a new idea. “Life is suffering,” said Buddha. “All is vanity,” wrote Solomon. “Creation groans with pain,” says Saint Paul. They were smart guys, and they would have understood Capra’s movie in a flash.
George Bailey’s suffering is both insane and real. (Scrooge’s concerns are also real – poverty really was a horrific danger in 1840s London.) Suffering is the one thing all human beings have in common, however lucky they may be. We all have unfulfilled dreams for the simple reason that dreams that come true are no longer dreams and new unfulfilled dreams take their place.
If George Bailey had shaken the dust off Bedford Falls and become an international playboy, he would have spent his life wishing he had married the girl next door.
Except that George, like Scrooge, is lucky and learns the message, not only from Christmas, but from Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Confucianism and any other worthy philosophy – the message only if you expect possessions or accomplishments or experiences make you happy, you will never, ever get there. The kingdom is within you, as the birthday boy said.
Comfort. Merry Christmas.