It really is a wonder that It's a Wonderful Life has become the preeminent American Christmas movie, eclipsing even the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street. When Life appeared in December 1946, costing the then-sizeable sum of three million dollars, box office barely covered production cost. Not even the fabled talent of director Frank Capra, weaver of pre-war populist magic in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941), seemed to help. Nor did the immense likeability of Jimmy Stewart, fresh back from four years of flying bombers in World War II. (Stewart the movie star had been forgotten by the end of the war, and he subsequently credited Capra's Life with saving his career). And so it might have remained if the film's copyright did not inadvertently expire, thereby making it cheap fare for late-night television. A mixed blessing it has been. To be sure, the mistake retrieved a masterpiece from oblivion, but with that have come decades of washed-out prints, dreadful colorization, popular veneration, and a sticky reputation for sentimentality and downhome optimism. In the case of It's a Wonderful Life, familiarity has bred misreading. Film snoots disdain the movie for its supposed gooiness, and the masses expect that very thing. Neither has got it right.
Its reputation has warped the capacity to view Capra's masterwork for what it is--a mostly somber take on the toll life ordinarily exacts on even, or especially, the best of people. Yes, there are good, even exquisitely sweet moments along the way, but these sooner or later get buried by the dross and evil waiting just off camera. In fact, only a last-minute, skin-of-thy-teeth angel ex machina keeps George Bailey (Stewart) from throwing himself in the river on Christmas Eve because real, palpable evil has gutted his dreams and imperiled his family and town. In George's eyes he has made a tragic botch of things, and he's worth more dead than alive. (The evil town banker, Mr. Potter [Lionel Barrymore], helpfully reminds George that at least his life insurance amounts to something.) Only an answer to many prayers, the intervention of a nonetoo- adept angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), saves George. Clarence cannily diverts George from suicide, first, by throwing his own angelic self into the river and, second, by tutoring George in what life in Bedford Falls would be like without him, a harrowing specter that propels George, despite his troubles, to grasp for the first time the depth of radiance that suffuses ordinary life in all its parts--existential, familial, and social. That is the foundational moral, and a crucial one it is, which Capra wants to carve on the souls of his viewers.
For George, getting to that knowledge is a hard route; it takes events to knock the stuffing out of him so he finally wises up. It's not that George was some kind of Babbitt, taking sales, status, and golf to be the apogee of living. George is a genuinely good fellow, selfless to a fault and duly appreciating his work and family, though he chafes against the constrictions they impose. Capra seems to wonder: if so good and smart and well loved a fellow as George Bailey doesn't recognize the quotidian splendor all about him, well then, how much can we hope for the rest of us, especially given how readily, when pressed and harried, we all dispense with gratitude?
Telling the Tale
Capra's film has gotten caught in the swill of Christmas treacle for two reasons that have to do with the film itself: his portraiture of an idyllic American past, and the use of a "heavenly" frame to tell his story. Capra seems to overstate both, making them sweeter and more laugh-laden than they need to be and thus fostering a sharp disjuncture between the film's alternating cheery and dark narrative modes. So fetching are the idyllic and often very funny vignettes of Americana, particularly of George's courtship of future wife Mary (Donna Reed), that viewers are ill-prepared to reckon with ill fortune when it arrives, especially if they are eager for the sugarcanes. Capra's realism does try to combat the sanguine by interspersing regular reminders of the precariousness of life--the near death of little brother Harry in a sledding accident, the disabling grief of Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner), the druggist, whose son has suddenly died, the early death of George's father that keeps George from going off to college, George's ambivalence about marriage, the bank-run that consumes George's honeymoon savings, and, of course, the everlooming menace of Mr. Potter, the town's voracious money-baron. Through the first part of the film, however, these constitute only an ominous undercurrent and set the stage for George's reluctant heroism. In short, Capra's comic virtuosity so skews the tone that audiences tend to slide over the warnings of impending tragedy. Then again, given the chance, people in general, and incorrigibly optimistic Americans in particular, will see what they want to, especially by ignoring the pall of tragedy if they possibly can. Indeed, it seems that since Capra's day Americans have become less adept than ever with the complexity that darkness imparts, even after tragedies of assassination, wrong-headed wars, and, of course, September 11th, 2001.
The other complication lies with the heavenly perspective that tells the story, although this is at the same time the film's great narrative stroke in allowing for the deft recounting of the high and low points of George Bailey's life. The film opens with random voices praying for one George Bailey, and in response two twinkling lights in a night sky discuss his dire straits. These heavenly presences, angels apparently, briefly summarize George's life to Clarence Oddbody, the daffily inept apprentice they've commissioned to help the justifiably desperate George. In this cosmogony, people gone to heaven eventually become full-blown angels, wings and all, but only after they have helped a distressed still-living person. For more astringent viewers, all of this gets cloyingly cute and whimsical, while for others it stokes expectations of an all-will-be-well lark where darkness greys out like Capra's high-contrast cinematography in all those bad prints.
So much in George's life goes so well and is told so sweetly that when the dark times come, light-disposed audiences seem ill prepared. So is George. After all, good fellow George, an all-American mensch, doesn't seem to deserve what evil befalls him, not by a long shot. George's virtue lies in the fact that his generous soul has always pretty uncomplainingly trumped his deep personal desire to leave provincial Bedford Falls behind and go to college and build buildings. After five years of working for his father, George is just about to tour the world and go to college when his father collapses and dies. Go he still could, but that would mean selling the family's small "building and loan" enterprise to the "richest and meanest man in the county," banker Potter, who would then impose usurious rates on working people. So George stays, instead sending younger brother Harry off to college and looking to the day when Harry returns so George can at last have his chance to shake the hometown dust from his feet. Harry does return, but with a bride on his arm and a fancy future in her father's chemical plant. George falls into his fate when on the same day, con- flicted though he is, he embraces old flame Mary Hatch. The film cuts to the nuptials as George and Mary head off to their around-the-world honeymoon, George's oftrelinquished chance to travel. But then, this being the Depression, the banks fail, and George and Mary use their travel money to keep the building and loan afloat.
Thereafter all seems to go well enough. The Baileys repair an abandoned house, have a bunch of kids, and scrimp on through World War II to sustain the building and loan. In the corner of the living room, George keeps a table full of models of buildings he'll never put up. Doomsday comes when George's dithering Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses a large cash payment he is to deliver to Potter's bank, an opportunity on which the old curmudgeon seizes, threatening the nettlesome George with prison when he comes to beg for help. Crazed with desperation and deeming his whole life a failure, George trashes his family, gets drunk, gets a punch in the mouth in response to prayer, and proceeds to the bridge to drown himself. Throughout this sequence, Capra has slowly changed modes from the nostalgic- idyllic to gothic realism, soaking George in glare and shadows that grizzle him to the haunted exile he soon becomes.
Then comes the real nightmare, an expressionistic counter-historical tour of Bedford Falls-become-Pottersville--in short, a world without George. His mother is an embittered widow, Uncle Billy has gone insane, his little brother did drown in a sledding accident (and didn't grow up to be a fighter ace saving troop ships), wife Mary is but a spinster librarian, and Potter has turned the town into hard-scrabble gin mill and bordello. Nor has Potter's field become the thriving Bailey Park, the building and loan development that houses the hard-working poor, whom Potter scorns as "riff-raff." Terrified that he has lost forever the preciousness that would not have been without him, George wants his life back, and Clarence gives it to him. And then, in one of the most celebrated long takes in film history, an exultant George runs the length of his "grubby" Bedford Falls (at the time, the longest film set ever constructed), cavorting and whooping in crazed ecstasy, adoring his broken-down car and even bidding the odious Potter a Merry Christmas. Even a warrant for his arrest occasions glee. At home, he engulfs his kids, ready to eat them alive. Wife Mary has meanwhile summoned friends and neighbors to George's aid, and they pour into the Bailey house to give what cash they have to make up the missing money. In another of Capra's great crowd scenes, everybody basks in the kindliness that has so enriched their lives. "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" is followed by "Auld Lang Syne" (steadfast Catholic Capra wanted "Silent Night" but the studio feared sectarianism). From phantasm to festival, it is quite a metaphysical jaunt.
Reckoning with Life in Life
The ending leaves audiences cheery, and well it should. After all, George has suffered a harrowing descent into a welter of non-being that flays his very soul. With his return to normalcy comes the relief that despite such travail there is help for human woe, an answer to the prayers of George and his friends and family.
But nothing really gets fixed by those prayers: no one finds the lost cash, fixes the drafty house, heals the sick daughter, or wins the lottery. The real answer to prayer is not the one George or anyone else wants; it is instead that nasty vision of non-life that George suffers. From and through that descent comes the recognition that not only does his life count for something but that seemingly humdrum life is itself full of blessing and incalculably precious. Clarence's inventive tour of nonbeing is surely forbidding, but it is at the same time a wild stroke of pure grace, no matter how corny its frame. Grace here is simply a matter of seeing; nothing whatever in George's circumstances has changed. Life in Bedford Falls still looks grubby, and Potter still blights the town, but George has returned with a radically different set of goggles that lets him now adore the lovely goodness which suffuses the commonplace structures of family and community. George has landed, Capra makes bracingly clear, in a world now disclosed to be, in the words of the most famous of all Shaker hymns, "a valley of love and delight."
Then Capra affords him a second grace. What George finds upon his return home speaks an emphatic confirmation of the truths pushed during his nightmare. The kids are all fine and darling in the extreme, which he pretty much knew beforehand, but more than that, half of Bedford Falls now pours into his living room to repair the financial calamity that started his plunge in the first place. Here the love and gratitude of friends return in spades everything an exceptional benefactor has given to those all about him. Part of George's goodness lies in the fact that he seems never to have considered the immense ordinary good he's done as anything amounting to very much, let alone anything meriting the label of sacrifice.
Taken as a whole, and because of George's bumpy ride, It's a Wonderful Life contests sentimental endorsements of American culture as particularly benign or righteous. First off, George's marginally white-collar existence hardly amounts to a secure middle-class life, especially financially. Almost all of his friends are poor, largely because they've stayed in Bedford Falls. What we do see of the better-off, "better sort," like Mary's one-time beau Sam Wainwright, seem pretty much oblivious to the needs of the poor that work their factories, drive their taxis, and police their streets. As for the Potters, well, there's simply no getting to them, so enamored they are of the exceptionalism of money and class. Their crony-capitalist Darwinism gives them the practical power and ample rationale to shirk the demands of compassion and commonweal. Short of the resounding whack on the soul that even George needs, they'll never get it.
It is precisely this sense of the imminent encroachment of evil, inside and out, that Capra posits as a pre-condition for the clarity and splendor George comes upon. A good stiff sense of the likelihood, if not inevitability, of destruction--the threat of losing everything--is in fact the very tonic that cleanses perception and clarifies what the heart should value. Indeed, light is never so brilliant, so savored, as after time spent in darkness--or blindness. More than likely Americans after World War II needed no reminder of the fragility of life, but they did sorely need reminders of life's potential for sweetness. To his credit, Capra provides those aplenty in It's a Wonderful Life.
In the six decades since Capra's film, most Americans have enjoyed an almost unfathomable benison of prosperity, security, and amusement, enough glitter and diversion to banish thoughts of lurking misfortune or the daily press of horror across its borders. Doing well, as opposed to doing good, has become the American birthright, and each Christmas season the culture seems to dip into the sweetness of Capra's film to sanctify its well-being. Entitlement appropriates sentiment to prettify a deeply troubled past and a haunted present so as to justify privilege. Indeed, in the church and out, we've all quite forgotten the evils of the Fall in which we are inexorably participants and sponsors of the first order. For folks like Capra, it is only by daily mindfulness of horror, both present and incipient, and of the abiding splendor that the horror throws into bold relief, that we ever come to relish fully the radiance infused into the most mundane ordinariness of creation.
Roy Anker is professor of English at Calvin College and a past editor of Perspectives. His most recent book is Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies (Eerdmans, 2004).