Saturday, December 20, 2008

Is it a "Wonderful Life"?

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an article by Wendell Jamieson about the Frank Capra classic "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). Jamieson argues that this "uplifting" classic is anything but:
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

I was somewhat stunned by this assessment. Admittedly, I haven't watched the film in its entirety in years. So I sat down tonight and watched it again, trying to pay attention to some of the points in Jamieson's article. My thoughts...

First, I am struck by what a masterful actor Jimmy Stewart was. From the moment we see the adult George Bailey, you can feel the undercurrent of rage and disappointment building in him. He has so many dreams as a young man, none of which he realizes. Forget the Congo - I don't think he even gets to New York City. While his friends and his brother go off and pursue their dreams, George shoulders the responsibility of living out his father's dream - that he run the family Building & Loan. You see the rage in small touches - a brief look, his face dropping as his dreams of escape are once again crushed. In the alternative world revealed to him by the angel Clarence, he is bordering on a mental meltdown - and his wild-eyed looks perfectly capture George's crazed state.

Second, I have to echo Jamieson's contention that the alternative Bedford Falls - now called Pottersville - looks like a much more fun place to live. Main Street is lined with casinos, bars, restaurants, exotic dance clubs...while the only entertainment on Main Street in Bedford Falls is a movie theater showing "The Bells of St. Mary's"!

Third, it ticks me off that in the alternative world, Mary never marries. Clarence reveals to George that "she's an old maid" and "is just closing the library now." So, instead of having to put up with the angry and depressed George Bailey for years, Mary instead is doomed to a life as a librarian. Grrrr.

Finally, the ending still makes me bawl! When brother Harry proposes a toast to George at the end ("the richest man in Bedford Falls"), I still lose it. The film's lovely message - Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he? - still touches me.

Jamieson isn't the only one to see the darker parts of the story. Here's a great blog entry about the film, and has some great little tidbits. I didn't know that Dorothy Parker and Dalton Trumbo worked on the screenplay; that this was the first post-war film for both Stewart and Capra; or that upon its release, it was labeled "subversive" by the FBI.

It's been interesting to revisit this old Christmas favorite, to watch it again with adult eyes. It did make me a little sad - especially watching George's frustrations build over the years and feeling so bad for him that he never seems to get what he wants. But I guess you could argue that George DOES get exactly what he wants - he just never realizes it until he nearly loses it all. A great holiday message after all: to be thankful for our friends, family, and the many gifts and blessings we have. And to appreciate them before they disappear.



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