We take the kids to a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life at the downtown theater. I’ve always been ambivalent about the film. It seems a version of The Giving Tree, a narrative of destructive self-sacrifice. George Bailey foregoes his own hopes and his future for the needs of his family and community. Then, what happens to his dreams deferred? They explode. George cracks, lashes out, and is driven to the brink of suicide. But then, the film pulls back, and gives a seemingly happy ending with a deus ex machina.
Nevertheless, off we went. I hadn’t seen it for years, never with my children, and never on the big screen. This combination made the experience much more interesting than I thought it would be.
I was struck by the way the movie gets some small details about family right. The putting of tinsel on George’s head even as he’s losing it. The daily annoyance of the imperfect house that literally comes apart in his hands.
My children were struck by the fact that George Bailey smoked. In fact, they were shocked. How could the hero smoke? And, from their point of view, he wasn’t much of a hero anyway. He didn’t seem to do anything (which, of course, is the film’s central theme). They kept wanting to know when the story was going to start. And, having been introduced to the idea of the angel from the beginning, my son kept asking, “When’s the angel coming? Where is he?” Clarence has very little screen time, but when he does arrive, he’s wonderful with quirky mannerisms, an odd reticence, and old-fashioned charm. However, I think my son was somewhat bewildered and disappointed.
Late in the film, when George comes home, frantic, unable to find the money that Potter has stolen, he rages at Mary, “Why did we have to have all these kids anyway?” My wife and I laughed out loud. We understood the complexity of this moment. His frustration and ambivalence. His love and sense of confinement. It’s more powerful and believable than his attack on Uncle. (And what is he doing giving Uncle Billy, a life-long air-head, such responsibility anyway?) Our reaction to George’s poor parenting, however, made our children nervous. Why were we amused at this attack on the kids? Nor did they understand why their mother, a teacher, was laughing at the argument between George and Zuzu’s teacher and husband.
As with many films, I find myself most intrigued by little details. There is a skull on Potter’s desk with a chain that leads to George. When the men watch Violet cross the street and walk up the block, one says something to the effect, “I have to go see my wife.” There are several references to “potter’s field” – the cemetery of the poor. Without the Bailey family’s presence, Potter would make the place a graveyard, a dumping ground, one that doesn’t recognize people’s individuality even in death. After all, many are simply “garlic eaters” – a slur against Italians that I had to explain to my wife.
After having learned that, in a world without George Bailey, his brother would have died, the people on the troopships would have died, the town would be a degraded cesspool of sin, what is revealed to be the worst possible consequence? Mary’s fate. Without him, this beautiful, educated, intelligent, strong woman would have been a spinster and . . . gasp . . . a librarian. Oh, the horror. In a film of fantasy, this seemed hardest to believe.
Afterwards, when I asked my kids what they liked, the seven year old son said, “When they all jumped into the pool.” My daughter agreed and added, “And when she lost her robe. That was funny.” That was about it. How this came to be considered a “family film,” one for children, is puzzling. And what they remember isn’t any supposed message, but the moments of cruelty: spraying seltzer into the face of the drunken broken pharmacist, keeping the money Uncle Billy misplaces, getting punched in the face and thrown into the snow. It’s the age-old problem of representing evil; it can be more memorable and affect us more.
Although this won’t end up being a holiday tradition of ours, I am struck by the movie’s audaciousness. In 1946, immediately after World War II, here is a story offering a complicated examination of the nature of heroism and the way doing “the right thing” can stifle and corrode us.
Then, it pulls back. We love snowfalls, in part, because they cover up, temporarily, the ugliness of the world. Even a garbage dump looks beautiful under a layer of snow. So, it’s not surprising that the stopping and starting of snow falling is a key concept of the film. The ending is a willful glossing over of what the story has revealed.
Or perhaps this feel-good film, this “inspirational” holiday classic, is actually a masterpiece of irony. After all, it seems to say that it would take a miracle, a supernatural event, an angel coming from heaven, to understand and appreciate what you have accomplished and to keep even the best of us from jumping off a bridge.