It’s that most wonderful time of year again. The chestnuts are roasting on an open fire (keep an extinguisher close by), Jack Frost is nipping at your nose (I’m not talking about the cute guy at work), and folks are dressed up like Eskimos (It’s supposed to be a cold ass winter). Yes my friends, it’s the Christmas season again, and in between those Black Friday fist fights, and the holiday arguments with that weird uncle, make sure you find time to watch the best Christmas movie of all time —Frank Kapra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
Oh, I can see it now. The idyllic town of Bedford Falls, snow falling, children playing, it’s almost Christmas, and George Bailey is on a bridge ready to plunge to his death…Wait, what? Back up, this sounds kind of heavy for a family film made in 1946, huh?
Life in a small town might be a dream to some, a prison sentence for others. For George Bailey, it was both. Often called an overly sentimental film, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is far more than that.
Henry F. Potter is the villain of this piece, and he utters the famous line “Sentimental hogwash,” after George delivers a passionate speech to board members considering selling his father’s Building and Loan to the greedy and self-serving Mr. Potter. Like critics of the film, Potter thought George’s proclamations were all bullshit.
After all, who needs sentimentality in 1946, just after a brutal war? And who needs it today when we are still involved in a brutal war of a different kind? Well really, we all do; and when it’s done as well as Kapra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I’ll take this kind of schmaltziness any time.
So who is George Bailey, and why has he resonated with so many, for so long?
George is a dreamer, a guy who had big plans that all fell apart due to circumstances beyond his control. He could’ve walked away from his responsibilities though —and he almost did. But George is a complex man, one who vacillates between loving Bedford Falls and resenting the hell out of it; so much so, that he is at the brink of ending it all. Is it a selfish act? Sure, but again that’s not the only reason he is willing to end his life. George truly believes that it will be better for everyone if he were never born —he believes this, that is, until Clarence comes along. The bumbling angel helps a broken man see his value in the town, and in the lives of the people who live there.
George Bailey is the epitome of an anti-hero, a flawed protagonist who struggles with the same issues that many of us do. Anger, dissatisfaction, and bitterness; mixed with a tendency to wallow in self-pity, makes for a fairly toxic cocktail that can easily find a person standing on a bridge ready to jump.
But George possesses many other wonderful qualities; he’s honest, loyal, and hardworking. But his biggest strength, is also his biggest weakness; the compulsive need to save others. And Clarence, realizing this, jumps into the river ahead of George, knowing that he will save Clarence, instead of killing himself. You see, someone up above is looking out for George, thinks the world needs more men like him, and Clarence is there to guide George through a life where he never existed, in order for him to see how wonderful it actually is.
His desire to save others is why we find George, on a bridge in the first place. He helps his Uncle Billy and his mother by staying and taking over the Building and Loan; he helps his little brother Harry go to college, and Harry returns the favor by becoming a war hero, while George is a 4F reject. George helps the townsfolk take out loans from his company, even though they might not ever be able to repay them fully. He continually gives, while others repeatedly take; not maliciously, but because George is always willing to help them.
But George doesn’t realize that he needs them too. And when they hear he is in trouble, when George’s wife Mary sends out the clarion call, everyone comes with whatever they can spare to help George out of his troubles. Sentimental? Sure, but it is also the kind of story that strikes a realistic chord for those of us who’ve been in George’s shoes.
When someone writes a story that transcends generations the way “It’s a Wonderful Life” has, you know they’ve hit upon something magical. Many of us have felt the utter despair that George Bailey feels out on that bridge. Maybe we never attempt to end our lives, but perhaps in the backs of our minds we think about it. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the story about George’s extremely abundant life. He isn’t rich monetarily, but he’s a vastly wealthy man when it comes to people who love him. And the line that sums this up completely, comes in the final moments of the film; when George’s younger brother Harry, who risked life and limb to come home and support his brother who had done so much for him, lifts his glass in a toast to the man who kept it all together after their father’s death. “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.” If that doesn’t hit you square in the heart, man you ain’t got one.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a film that means as much today as it did in 1946. These kinds of life struggles are relevant to countless people, regardless of race, gender, or social status. Sometimes life is fucking hard, and we may not have a lovable guardian angel to show us the way, but we can find angels, right here in our everyday lives if we only look past life’s disappointments to see the blessings that have been bestowed upon us, no matter how small.
So during this Christmas holiday, as you consider the year that was, truthfully examine your life, and try to see the value in it. It may be hard to do, but you my friend need to find those special people who make you feel like the richest person in town.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
~Welcome to a monthly look at the art of creative writing from all kinds of mediums: Books, music, movies, television, and anything else I can think of. If you have any ideas please feel free to offer them in the comments below. I hope you find it helpful as well as entertaining ~AN