A wonderful film with a chill
‘Tis the season to jolly, of course, but that’s not the main reason why I plan to savor a double dose of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life this weekend.
I have plans to see the film twice this week. And on both occasions, I am certain, I’ll once again appreciate It’s a Wonderful Life as a gift that keeps on giving. No kidding.
But even as he provides a comforting tableau of peace on earth, good will toward men, Frank Capra doesn’t entirely dispel the unsettling chill left over from George Bailey’s long dark night of the soul.
Sorry, but I turn a deaf ear and a blind eye whenever some cynic tries to convince me that this enduring classic is nothing but cloyingly sentimental Capra-corn. Indeed, I’ve always been struck by the movie’s hard edges and dark undercurrents — by what film critic and historian Dave Kehr recently described as its “bleak, film-noir imagery and barely suppressed undertone of suicidal despair” — as it considers the life of George Bailey (James Stewart at the top of his form), a small-town savings-and-loan manager whose grand ambitions and stirrings of wanderlust have always been stifled by civic duty and family responsibility.
On a particularly bleak Christmas Eve, George thinks of prematurely ending what he feels has been a useless, worthless existence. (Hey: Been there, felt that.) George sells himself much too short, of course. But it requires nothing short of divine intervention — i.e., the appearance of a guardian angel — for him to fully appreciate that his life has touched and enriched many other lives, much the same way we all affect (for better or worse) the people around us, often without our knowing.
And even then, George has to learn his lessons the hard way: By seeing, in harrowingly precise detail, what the world might have been like if he’d never been around.
Over the past three or four decades – thanks in large part to countless TV airings during the 1970s and ‘80s – It’s a Wonderful Life has become enshrined as America’s official Christmas movie. And, to be sure, the final scenes of rejuvenation and reconciliation speak in an optimistic and encouraging voice to all of us.
But even as he provides a comforting tableau of peace on earth, good will toward men, Frank Capra doesn’t entirely dispel the unsettling chill left over from George Bailey’s long dark night of the soul. And we’re forced to consider: In the real world — a place where even harsher lessons are taught and learned — how many George Baileys don’t get the miracle they need? When the best among us begin to think the least of themselves, what happens when their angels don’t show up?
More than a half-century after Capra’s classic kicked off its initial theatrical run – and, ironically, proved to be a box-office under-achiever – Spike Lee ended 25th Hour, his furiously melancholy meditation on life and dread in post-9/11 New York, with a character’s bittersweet (and bitterly ironic) summing-up: “This life came so close to never happening.” Anyone who knows and loves It’s a Wonderful Life will know exactly what he’s talking about.