by Brad Nelson 12/24/17
Aka “It’s a Wonderful Life…some of the time.” • I’ve never heard what happens on the second Noel. Also, as Pat has informed us, there are not nine reindeer (counting Rudolph). There are ten. Her name is Olive. Olive the other Reindeer.And…is it okay to have a White Christmas or is that term a “trigger” for some? Whatever the case may be, we’re having a white Christmas Eve….soon to turn into a slush Christmas Eve.
If Clarence is the angel who makes an appearance in It’s a Wonderful Life, is there also a demon? Is he the guy at the school dance who whispers into Alfalfa’s ear and tells him about the retractable floor with the swimming pool below, and then just happens to have the key and gives it to him?
Speaking of which, why the heck was Uncle Billy ever entrusted to make bank deposits involving large wads of cash?
I watched that movie tonight after a hiatus of a couple years. Perhaps Gone with the Wind is the only other movie with an actor in the lead role who was irreplaceable and without whom the movie would have been a pale reflection of itself. This is even more the case with Jimmy Stewart. Interestingly, this is his first film after coming out of the army. Stewart wasn’t sure he still had it in him. But not only did he still have the small-town-boy-makes-good charm, his dramatic moments in It’s a Wonderful Life are superb and believable.
Donna Reed was a late choice but an inspired one for Capra who was a master of casting, at least for this film. In the extras on the CD it notes that Capra pulled stereotyped H. B. Warner out of relative obscurity to play Mr. Gower. Warner was Cecil B. DeMille’s definitive Christ in 1927’s The King of Kings.
I can never remember if Ernie is the cop and Bert is the taxi driver or if it’s the other way around.
So what does this movie mean? Surprisingly, although Frank Capra’s nickname within the industry was “Capracorn” because of his propensity for sentimentality, this is a much edgier movie than commonly given credit for being. It is by no means certain that George Bailey is a good and decent man beyond being a man who simply does his duty and sacrifices for others.
But he didn’t necessarily do so happily. His bitterness at being stuck in that old small-town building-and-loan, as well as never being able to travel the world and to become an architect, make him a pressure-cooker ready to blow. And blow he does when Uncle Billy misplaces the money and George suddenly realizes that he is in the role of Job. For all of his faithfulness to family, hard work, and sacrifice he is faced with inevitable scandal and likely prison time. (Despite his tongue-lashing of Billy and declaring that he, George, sure as heck wasn’t going to prison for this, you knew in your heart of hearts that George would have taken the blame for the misplaced funds.)
Even in the midst of his slow breakdown, he has nothing but patience for little Zuzu. That is George’s character. He’s always looking out for the little guy, even if the little guy is his old boss, Mr. Gower. George’s character is revealed in full when he shows the wisdom and sensitivity in response to Gower switching medicines and almost poisoning a young boy because of his overwhelming grief over the death of his own son due to influenza. George takes ear-smacking abuse from Mr. Gower but never, ever has anything but compassion for the man…a compassion that redeems him, at least compared to the alternate non-George-existing-Pottersville wherein Mr. Gower winds up a drunk.
Would any of us as an adult have the grace to handle that situation like that? Almost certainly not.
The Code in effect at the time meant that words such as “jerk” and “damn” were excised from the script. No doubt the word “tramp” would have been forbidden as well as an apt description of Violet played to sinful delight by Gloria Grahame. Was she an actual prostitute or just a very loose woman? It’s never quite clear. But hers is another life redeemed, in small part, by George Bailey.
And could there have ever been a wonderful life without Donna Reed? She sets all the wheels in motion — at least in regards to keeping it Bedford Falls and not Pottersville. She is the hopeful small-town soul whose world need not be larger than her family. It’s politically incorrect nowadays — and probably quite offensive to feminist hags — but in the non-George-existing-Pottersville she’s an old maid, and a frumpy one at that with no man and only her career as a librarian. Imagine a time when the image of a woman self-actualizing was to find and partially redeem a man.
Was it a wonderful life for George? Well, not until he saw the alternative. He had a good life but, like most of us, didn’t appreciate what he had. And much of what he lived was a bit of a downer in regards to the overall. He didn’t get to travel the world. He didn’t fulfill his dream of building big things and becoming an architect. He didn’t escape his smothering small-town and his familial responsibilities of maintaining the Bailey Building & Loan. He didn’t, in modern parlance, get his semi-yearly vacation in Cabo. Instead, he took part in a local battle — one seemingly unrewarded and unregarded — against the Mr. Potters of the world.
George fought the battle of Bedford Falls while his brother, Harry, fought and won a much more prominent battle and received the medal of honor for do so. All George got for his humble efforts was the threat of imprisonment and scandal.
Does anyone today actually believe the small battles are the most important ones? Is there anyone in this culture, outside of good parents (whose very lives become one of sacrifice by virtue of being a good parent), who truly believes that anything worth doing doesn’t alway require a showy reward if not a thousand Facebook “Likes”?
It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of hard virtues and sacrifices that can leave us feeling unrewarded, unappreciated, and bitter. In the real world as it exists today, the Violets are the ones winning Emmys for “twerking” while the Donna Reeds are shamed as slaves of the patriarchy. George Bailey — without the direct intervention of an angel, mind you — is a suicide victim with the natural result being that Bedford Falls falls to the equivalent of Harvey Weinstein and becomes Pottersville.
No one, so far as we know, intervenes for us in the way Clarence did. We have to do the honest and right thing knowing that this world tends to shit on such things and rewards the opposite. It’s even possible that millennials would view It’s a Wonderful Life as some kind of parody and have a laugh, even at the dramatic moments.
Like I said, I find this movie to have much more grit in it than just the simply “Capracorn” it is usually known for. There is indeed a happy ending. But for many of the real George Baileys of the world, they are roadkill for the Mr. Potters, and few know or care. This movie is therefore like a Psalm. It’s a reminder that the world works one way but it’s good to be reminded there are other ways to be. And, most importantly, we must reward and appreciate the George Baileys of the world or else his kind are doomed to extinction.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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