It’s A Wonderful Life: More Than A Christmas Movie, A Timeless American Classic
While everyone remembers Clarence and the “alternate reality” where George was never born, that’s not the best part of It’s A Wonderful Life. The first two-thirds of the move just look back on George Bailey’s whole experience- a life of constant struggle to get out of his tiny hometown, and the constant demands that draw him back. In it’s rapid swings from depressing cynicism to sugary fantasy, Frank Capra‘s classic becomes much more than a Christmas movie: it’s a rare timeless look at the hardships of the American Dream, one that is unusually resonant today.
Capra himself might have strong thoughts on today’s various protest movements and economic debates. An immigrant who came to the US from Sicily at the age of six, Capra grew up poor in LA and worked all through high school; he refused to end his education, and put himself through college (the only person in his family to go), and then enlisted in the army. Still, after all these accomplishments, Capra found himself bumming around the American West in his 20s, learning that hard work may be required, but it’s no guarantee of success.
Perhaps these experiences were in Capra’s mind when he filmed George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) standing up for affordable housing. Yep, even 75 years ago, Capra knew that having a home was a central (and problematic) pillar of the American Dream. The cruel Mr. Potter claims that putting home ownership within reach of the masses would just create a “discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class,” anticipating the self-aggrandizing, anti-social welfare arguments of today; the implication is that anyone without a home, education, health insurance, or a job simply didn’t work hard enough. But Capra had learned first hand that all the hard work and thrift in the world still needs a helping hand and a lucky break sometimes.
Yes, the film pours on the saccharin heavy much of the time, but I don’t think it gets enough credit for the hardships it portrays too. Bedford Falls might be a fantasy, but it’s far from perfect. The town faces rough times after the machine works close, and Mr. Potter obviously has to have slum-dwellers for his slums. The residents can be mean and short-sighted, with real problems: during the bank rush scene, a women yells that her husband hasn’t found work in a year, just before dozens begin removing their money or running to Potter. The pharmacist drinks after his son dies. Sure, “Pottersville” might be a more realistic look at a post-industrial town hard on its luck, full of booze, sex, broken families, and crime. But maybe that’s the whole point- that George Bailey (or the ideals he stands for) is the vulnerable dam holding back the floodwaters already perceptible in Bedford Falls.
What’s more, almost each moment of selfless sacrifice or hometown commitment is marked not by George’s enthusiastic compliance, but by his creeping dread at what he must do. He races for the door to catch his train to college just as a board member announces that if George doesn’t take over the Building & Loan, it will be closed by Potter; George doesn’t want to stay, but he knows he will hate himself for leaving. Same thing as he clutches Mary, trembling with rage, and says he will never get married, just moments before smothering her with kisses. And after turning down a lucrative job with Mr. Potter, George wallows in doubt, standing stoop-shouldered before a mirror, hearing the voices of his past dreams taunt him. George never accomplishes these goals in the end; he just realizes that he’s been living a different, amazing adventure the whole time.
It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t a movie about how fair the American Dream is, but about how we love it anyway. When you catch it in syndication this year, maybe you’ll think about the first hour a little more, and the Sicilian immigrant who made the film after fighting his way up from poverty, while never losing hope, empathy, or compassion.