— by JOEL CRARY —
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is the story of a man who feels his life being pulled away from him, year by year, as he struggles to keep a destiny within his sights. George Bailey, as played by cinema great James Stewart, is an institutive American character perhaps unrivaled by any other aside from Charles Foster Kane. However, whereas Kane realizes the American dream only to squander it with greed and self-interest, Bailey is chained to the middle class by his empathy and respect — his experience of the American nightmare, to never have existed at all, causes him to recognize and appreciate his own worth. It is what I have most recently called my favourite movie of all time.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is regarded as a Christmas classic despite the fact that over half of the film never so much as mentions the holiday. It was not a film I grew up with. There was no tradition in place to watch it on Christmas Eve, and I don’t recall seeing so much as a single frame of the film until I caught a bit of it on television in my early twenties.
I remember the scene, however, to this day: George greets his brother at the train station after waiting four years for him to complete school. His brother’s return is yet another ticket for George to break the bonds of hometown Bedford Falls and branch out. He shuffles through brochures detailing exotic locations on every latitude, the excitement from his youth waning somewhat but still intact. His brother’s news: a marriage, the opportunity to start a decent job. George will have to remain at his father’s building and loan office. Another dream takes to the air, lost in the beautiful sound of a train whistle.
I have seen the film many times since. I have studied it for university courses in contexts of the Hollywood film industry and World War II American film narratives. However, the films I tend to truly appreciate are the ones with which I form connections on an emotional level. Stewart has many effective scenes as George’s idealism is battered and beaten time and again. Scared to death that the misplacement of money will result in jail time, the nearly impenetrable veneer of George Bailey comes crashing down in front of his family through violent outbursts and sharp commands. Without speaking a word, George grabs his son and weeps silently over his shoulder at the thought of losing all he has in the stead of all he’ll never be. His clenched-fist conversations with God for mercy in spite of not being a “praying man” and pondering suicide capture a general humanity at both its lowest and most hopeful.
As infused with religious connotation as the film is, it never serves as a detraction. The film simply wouldn’t work without the angel getting his wings. George needs ethereal intervention because nothing on earth has the power to change his mind. He wants to see the world, yet he never leaves Bedford Falls. That’s why the presence of Clarence and the nightmare are such brilliant plot devices – he doesn’t have to leave Bedford Falls to ultimately reach an understanding of the value of his life. Ultimately, George sees a vision much bigger than the world and is so frightened by its implications that he needs to see no more.
At first look, the film seems to wallow in hokey sentimentalism about appreciating what one has been given. George doesn’t need to go to Europe; he has a family and friends who love him. What would Paris provide? How could building skyscrapers and bridges compensate? Yet, look at George as a character type. His life is never quite what he wants it to be. He has every opportunity to change it. He could refuse to man the building and loan. He could walk away from a relationship with the girl next door. None of it is forced upon him. Yet he stays put. He marries the girl. He sticks with the “business of nickels and dimes.” Why? I like to think it’s because George has the rest of his life to want something else to do. It’s just the kind of person he is. His is a wonderful, small-scale life, and regardless of his rhetoric it is something in which he finds great contentment.
But what rhetoric. What glorious delivery of words of passion and dedication. My favourite moments in the film are Stewart’s speeches, as he rips into Lionel Barrymore for trashing his father’s legacy, as he pleads with the townspeople to understand the nature of his living. This is James Stewart at his most fiery, matched perhaps only by his performance in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But even that film lacks the enormous recesses and heights in a character that are provided in George Bailey. We see George weep and pray; we see him lose his mind in joyous exultation. The final scene of the film is one of the happiest you’ll find, in part because it is proceeded by a buildup of such seeming despair and anguish. George Bailey, with only one working ear, lives for others. He is repeatedly denied what anyone would call a right to live for himself. Life trods along, out of his reach. Finally, George ponders one final, selfish act. He believes he has lost everything, and then he is shown what others would lose without him. In a plot point used previously by Capra in “You Can’t Take It with You,” the community rallies to not only pull George out of debt, but out of the depths within himself. The look on the face of George Bailey, overwhelmed and humbled to the point of exhaustion, is one of the film’s great moments.
No man is a failure who has friends. Is that a moral? It is, perhaps, the creed of a life. We all have our own lives to define, to manage and spend wisely. We all have our own words to see us through, to help us reach out and touch the things that matter most to us. Wonderful is relative.
Follow Joel Crary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joelcrary.