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the pathetic caverns - movies by title - It's a Wonderful Life

eclectic reviews and opinions

It's a Wonderful Life

1946, D: Frank Capra; S: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra

Through a series of occurrences probably more boring than intriguing, I don't think I actually managed to see It's a Wonderful Life in its entirety until this year. I sort of think that long ago I might have watched the first half hour or so and then been sent to bed (or maybe fell asleep); I know that much more recently I saw just the ending. And of course, I was familiar with the essentials of the plot -- I may have been raised in a cave, at least for media literacy purposes, but I don't live in one now. (Part of the reason I'm pretty sure I never really saw it is that I have what is obviously a false memory of George Bailey being thrown into conflict by the fact that in the world without him his wife was married to Sam Wainright, the rich plastics guy, but then realizing that it wasn't a happy marriage. Perhaps I'm conflating one of the many parodies with the film itself.)

What I really wasn't prepared for was how grim and hard-hitting it was. It's possible to see just the ending and think the whole thing was pretty treacly. It's certainly possible to hear all the pop culture references and assume the whole thing is pretty treacly. I'm grateful to a friend for persuading me that it was really worth watching (just a few weeks earlier, thanks to the same friend, I saw "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," also for the first time that I can remember. Just to provide a benchmark, I wouldn't characterize that one as "grim and hard-hitting").

If you want to think that the movie is all sweetness and light, if the idea of someone finding a dark underside to one of your treasured holiday icons makes your skin crawl, you should probably stop reading now. But since I've got a comparitively rare opportunity to consider It's a Wonderful Live as a film, not as a hallowed icon that happens every winter holiday season, I thought I'd take it.

And it really seems to me that there's no way that It's a Wonderful Life could be made, intact, today. And if it were, I think it would merit at least a PG-13 rating. There's far more moral ambiguity and emotional violence than I was prepared for, and the movie may hint at even worse: when young George Bailey doesn't deliver the poisoned medicine, Mr. Gower is quick to react with physical violence. How strong a word is "abuse" for that? How about when Bailey lashes out verbally at his wife and kids? What exactly does it say about the Bailey household that the bartender knows him by name, and isn't all that surprised to see him, alone, on Christmas Eve? What does it say about the family that bumbling Uncle Billy is too ravaged by booze to handle even simple tasks without screwing them up?

It would be easy to argue that I'm seeing things in this movie that Frank Capra never intended to put there. In fact, I think agree. I'm the product of the times I live in, and my interpretations are colored by my own experiences. But likewise, the movie is a product of its time. Capra might not have applied words like "alcoholic" or "abusive" to people and situations that we might apply those words to here in (oh so enlightened and self-aware!) 1997.

The big surprise of the movie for me, though, was no accident of over-interpretation: George Bailey is no one-dimensional goody two-shoes. He's driven more by anger and ambition than love and tenderness. He does what is probably the "right thing," and is repeatedly selfless, but not from a desire for martyrdom. His moral sense drives the choices he makes, but it doesn't stop him from resenting the circumstances that force him to make those choices. It was the tension between what Bailey was striving for, and what he did that made the movie so unexpectedly compelling. And Jimmie Stewart's performance as George Bailey (like you need me to tell you this) is extraordinary -- easily nuanced enough to support examination of the sort of undercurrents I'm talking about.

My friend Dorothy called the finale "one of the most unambiguously happy endings in all of film," but I ain't even buying that. At the end of the movie Bailey's financial crisis is resolved, sure, and he realizes how important he's been to the town he's hated -- but I can't see how in the long run that will sate his frustrated ambitions, or help him (warning -- PC language) "manage his anger" better. It might give him the perspective he needs to deal with his situation a little better, even if he's not exactly content with it -- but that's the kind of "happy ending" we can strive for in real life, not the happy-ever-after fairy-tale kind.

I'd always assumed this movie was just a fairy-tale, sappy at worst, cute at best. I was delighted to discover it had so much more depth and grit.

(12.23.97)

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