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With 30 Christmases behind me, an outsider would have good odds on betting I’d at least once in my life experienced a full sitting of Frank Capra’s seminal 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. But like several similarly cherished films of yesteryear – none of which I’ll name here, to my wife’s dismay – I just never put my mind to watching it, having somehow skirted around it as a kid, and the rampant outpouring of pubescent cynicism held it at bay for the next 18 years. Though my immaturity still knows few bounds, I am a few years into being a family man whose edges have softened with bigger and brighter holidays looming in my future. So why not bite the bullet, or jump off a bridge as it were and find the true Christmas spirit.
Instead, I just got depressed for 130 minutes or so. I say that hyperbolically, but I didn’t realize how little I understood about what this film was about; passively reading about it for all these years taught me zilch. Knowing it was something of an angelic homage to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I figured the entire film would be geared towards that narrative format instead of only coming to it in the latter third. I didn’t expect to know George Bailey from the ground up, and definitely didn’t think that I’d completely understand why the man was contemplating suicide. How on Earth did this become a film that people wanted to watch year after year?
There’s no denying how strong the film plays, however, and it packs a lot of story into those two hours, utilizing more than enough comedy and charisma to make one forget the dreariness lurking behind every scene. As a child, I doubt I would have recognized or related to the myriad of ways in which George’s life is such a crumbled mess, not to mention the world around him. The same goes for Requiem For a Dream, a walk in the park compared to this movie. (Kidding.)
As well, a childhood viewing would have seen me at an age when religion still mattered, and I might have felt something more for that part of the story. I can still appreciate an angel trying to get his wings, don’t get me wrong, but I would be lying if I said the lengthy conversation between the two angelic balls of light in the beginning didn’t make me feel like I was getting pranked in some way. But while I kept thinking to myself there were better ways Capra could have tackled that point, I also kept wishing the more non sequiturs like that popped up throughout the film.
Our first impressions of George involve him getting deafened by cold water in a heroic effort to save his brother, followed by him calling a girl brainless for not liking coconuts, just before he realizes his pharmacist boss is depressed that his son died and stops him from accidentally poisoning a child. That’s some heavy shit. He grows up and shoves his dreams under the rug after being forced to run a modest but necessary Building and Loan office, because of course his father dies and there’s no one else to do it. (His brother does get married, so… yay for him, I guess.) And then goddamned Uncle Billy loses all the bank’s money and George’s maintainable lifestyle takes a nosedive when it’s assumed he’s stolen it. With nowhere else to go, and no one to whom he can turn – since his wife and four kids certainly don’t have that kind of cash – George decides that suicide is the answer.
I watched most of this movie also thinking about it from that dastardly Mr. Potter’s point of view, given Scrooge’s input was a lot of how Dickens’ tale was told. The way I’m looking at it, he wants to run Bedford Falls, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to run it into the ground and destroy it, thus giving himself nothing to run and make money from. Who’s to say by George existing in the first place that Potter wasn’t a different man from the guy who wanted nothing but titty bars and nightclubs? Sure, he commits the heinous act of stealing the money from absent-minded Uncle Billy, but what if George is the real tool for not selling out and making his family happy, on the off-chance that Potter is going to do something good with Bedford Falls? I think maybe I’m still reeling from Breaking Bad being off the air.
In any case, things only get worse once Clarence shows up and shows George what life would be like had he not existed, and nearly everyone George knew is now miserable in Pottersville, despite all the debauchery. And he somehow learns that by living his arguably shitty life, as compared to the one he always wanted for himself, he truly has a wonderful life. To me, he should just realize how dependent everyone is on him, and the pressure of all that should drive him back to jumping. Plus, I’m not sure if donation money can rightfully cover up money that someone is accused of stealing.
It’s a Wonderful Life, to my surprise, definitely stands up strong more than 65 years later, and is a fine example of how mature the material was in family films of old. Somehow I don’t think Free Birds will see 1/55 the holiday film shelf life. It’s nearly impossible to dislike James Stewart or Donna Reed in any performance, and they sell the troubled turn their lives take. While news of a proposed remake already made me sick without having watched it, that feeling is doubled now. And though I didn't walk away from it with oodles of good feelings exuding from my pores, I now know why the film has touched so many people's hearts for all these years. Maybe I'll be a little more inspired by it the next time I see it. Or the next time. Or the next time.
Does anyone else out there see this movie like I do, or do you guys think the uplifting parts are more prominent? For each comment you guys put, one of Clarence’s compadres gets his or her wings.