It’s A Wonderful Life (sometimes)

George at the end of his rope

George at the end of his rope

It’s A Wonderful Life was released in 1946 but its uncanny ability to have such a direct, emotional connection with audiences has allowed it to be programmed 68 years later in a prime-time slot on network tv in 2014. Sadly, few films that old have that kind of reach these days. But what’s most fascinating to me is how unrelentingly grim the film is. The hugely cathartic ending is the only moment of redemption in an otherwise desperate story of George Bailey; a man who is knocked down repeatedly as he endeavors to get out of Bedford Falls. Moreover, Capra’s most famous movie does not pull any punches when it comes to showing the shortcomings of small town living. The locals are portrayed as short-sighted and easy to manipulate with Potter lording over the town like an evil king. In the end, Bailey doesn’t really achieve anything as much as he dodges a larger than usual bullet. Thanks to his family and friends, he survives. And that’s it. Though the film is often accused of being overly sentimental in it’s portrayal of small town America I find that criticism to be only partly accurate. Sure we are given scenes like the big school dance with its Charleston contest and Buffalo gals-walk in the moonlight but the film bookends those scenes with Bailey’s father lamenting a lifetime spent fighting Potter and then his abrupt death. Is there anything sweeter than young Mary whispering into George’s bad ear at the malt shop? No. But that scene is immediately followed by Mr. Gower slapping George around until his ear bleeds. This juxtaposition of tone keeps returning us back to a familiar reality.  Ultimately, what gives the movie its power is that local yokel George Bailey is punished for his kindness and his generosity. He is made to suffer. And though we are overwhelmed with joy as the town swiftly comes to his aide, we realize that George’s life is much like ours; often messy and incredibly difficult.  However, the beautiful take-away is that lasting relationships and kindness that is not conditional are the only things that allow us to attach the word wonderful to the word life.

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