It’s a Wonderful Life
Jimmy Stewart can’t escape small-town blues.
Published: December 19, 2012
It’s a Wonderful Life
Directed by Frank Capra
At The AFI Silver Dec. 14, 15, and 20-24.
In the nadir of George Bailey’s fiscal throes, he sits at a bar (Martini’s) on Christmas Eve, stares down a glass of bourbon—neat—and clutches his insurance policy, tucked into the pocket of his overcoat. His eyes dart about wildly, as if looking for an invisible answer to appear before him. Presumably drunk, desperate, glistening with sweat, George balls his fist and presses them against his face. He stammers out a prayer: “God, dear father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.”
And unless you’ve got something against black-and-white movies, you know what follows: George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) staggers out of the bar and winds up on a bridge, contemplating the icy waters below; just then, his guardian angel—the wayward Clarence (Henry Travers)—jumps into the fray, literally, and shows George just how important a presence he is in the small town of Bedford Falls.By the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, little Janie Bailey will be banging out an unpolished “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” on the piano as friends and family flood into the parlor, dumping much-needed cash in front of a disheveled Jimmy Stewart.
If its ending sounds saccharine, think again. Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic drains you of cheer and optimism for almost two hours. It bludgeons its viewers with a nearly never-ending streak of bad luck that pursues George Bailey—who, in light of all of his misfortune, resembles a gangly, grown-up Charlie Brown, constantly denied the opportunity to kick the damn football.
In an early scene, a young George Bailey slings ice cream and candy in a drugstore. He carries around a copy of National Geographic in his back pocket. He tells pint-sized Mary Hatch that he’s going to explore the world (just before, she leans over the counter and whispers into his deaf ear that she’ll love him till the day she dies). Years later, well after he’s graduated high school, George is still carrying that same dream and only one night away from setting sail for a pre-college trip to Europe, having toiled away at the family bank for a number of years. His dad mentions working at the bank after college and George apologetically declines, saying that he would “bust” if he were cramped up in tiny Bedford Falls. “I want to do something big and important, build cities, travel,” George offers.
That same night, his father suffers a stroke. George skips Europe. Then he skips college to run the Bailey Building and Loan Association, because he just won’t allow the town’s one financial alternative to the crotchety Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) to close shop. His bumbling Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) encourages him to leave, assuring George that he’ll find another job. But ideals precede dreams for George Bailey.
The string of ill-fated attempts to flourish—really, to escape becoming a townie—continues, mercilessly. George’s brother, Harry (Todd Karns), who went off to college when George didn’t, returns to Bedford Falls with a bachelor’s degree, a wife, and a job in Buffalo—derailing George’s backup plan, to put Harry in his post at the bank so he can work in a foreign country. He can’t even take a vacation; just before he and Mary (Donna Reed) embark on their honeymoon, there’s a run at the bank and George resolves the crisis by giving away all but two bucks of the $2,000 the newlyweds had for their trip.
At about 75 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life, St. Joseph, the narrator, says to Clarence, “Now, you’ve probably already guessed that George never leaves Bedford Falls.” The pronouncement comes off quickly, matter-of-factly. But it’s a punch in the gut. Everyone in Bedford benefits from George—otherwise impoverished families move out of the Potter “slums” because of the Building and Loan Association; Harry wins a Congressional Medal of Honor; Mary fixes up her dream home and whelps a small litter of kids. And George trudges away at the pressure-cooker bank with his inept uncle.
By the time Clarence swoops in, at around an hour and 40 minutes in, most millennial viewers will be checked out of It’s a Wonderful Life, aghast at this smart, likeable man whose compromise knows no limits, a man who possesses high ideals, none of which he channels into pursuing his own dreams. And even when Clarence and George tour Bedford Falls sans George Bailey (Pottersville, in the alternate universe), the town bustles with bars and clubs—it might pass for a less quaint Fells Point. We spend 20 minutes in Pottersville, and even though George flees from it fast, it’s simply not awful enough to outweigh the tribulations of George Bailey.
Overall, the film would seem like a cautionary tale for the ambitious, the passionate, the people who see marriage and children as impediments to success and fulfillment.
And yet, in the final scene, when George hightails it back to his house and hugs his kids; when Mary returns with the entirety of Bedford Falls in tow—Ernie the cabbie, Mr. Gower the pharmacist, Mr. Martini the bar owner, and every little character we’ve met over the past two hours—when George can’t stop smiling at the overdue outpouring of generosity, exchanging tearful looks of disbelief and gratefulness with Mary; when the group choruses that homey rendition of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”; when the community who took and took and took from George Bailey finally rewards him for his generosity, rallying round him, you can’t help but well up a bit, George’s dashed dreams be damned.
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