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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

by on 2010/12/24


“It’s full of romance, that old place.  I’d love to live in it.”

* * * *

It’s an indication of the extent to which It’s a Wonderful Life has insinuated itself into my mind that, every single time I find a buffalo gourd plant in the video game Fallout: New Vegas, I sing under my breath, “Buffalo gourd, won’t you come out tonight, won’t you come out tonight, won’t you come out tonight?”  But then it’s hardly surprising a perennial classic of supernatural intervention, timeline disruption, and alternate realities should be memorable for a geek like me.

Set in Bedford Falls, New York, the film begins with children tobogganing and ends on Christmas Eve, a generation later.  One of the children, George Bailey (played in later years by James Stewart) may be the protagonist of the tale, but seems to do far less than his role requires.

For all his talk of wanting “to do something big, something important” he never does more than the little things.  He spends his life longing for the far away and grandiose, and yet lives to martyr his opportunities for family, friends, and other underdogs.

Eventually he is burdened with confinement in his home town, a job he never wanted, and a family he didn’t expect.  Add an incompetent coworker, a financial disaster, and misplaced liability, and you have all the qualifications for a divine intervention.

Wonderful Life is nearly impossible to critique on a technical basis.  Almost seventy years along, its production values are modest enough to keep it effectively timeless.  And though construction is less a factor in its undying appeal than the spirit of redemption at its heart, that message is less straightforward than I’d recalled.

Perhaps the most unrecognized — and insidiously appealing — dynamics are the complex triangulations between aspiration, action, and reward.  What George wants (or believes he wants), what he does, and how he’s repaid are not clearly related (or relayed).  He rages “I want to do what I want to do!” fully intending to turn his back on the family business, leave town, travel the world, attend college, and amass “a couple of harems’” worth of wives.

In practice, “He never thinks of himself, God, that’s why he’s in trouble.”  He is injured, abandons travel, forfeits college, donates money and, in various other ways, consistently puts the needs of others ahead of his own.  The story suggests he does so without thinking, but I don’t believe his actions bear it out.  The sacrifice of his hearing in saving of brother Harry may have been unexpected, however, in almost every instance, he is well aware of the costs.

Because the reward for his actions are by and large long term, he’s occasionally frustrated along the way.  The penalties for his choices, misfortune, and loss are difficult to bear.  He may claim, “I don’t care what happens to me!” but there are moments when Stewart’s legendary charm moves into a darker place, one of tantrums, abuse, even violence.

George has no inherent mechanism to reconcile dreams and disappointments.  He fails to see (or find comfort in) the small victories adding up to grander things.  His father alludes to this possibility in an earlier exchange.

“You know, George, I feel that in a small way we are doing something important, satisfying a fundamental urge.  It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.”

If the words have any influence on George’s behaviour, they clearly have none on his peace of mind.

So while It’s a Wonderful Life illustrates friendship as a means of insuring oneself against adversity, its lesson is hardly as altruistic (or even reassuring) as the movie would have us believe.  Our hero — and by extension the audience — might be better served by a different message, that actions must be their own reward.

* * * *

Rated G

130 minutes

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