One of my freshman-year roommates had never seen Star Wars. No, he hadn’t been home-schooled by Jehovah’s Witnesses or raised in the Amazon jungle by crocodiles; he was a normal kid from New York, versed in popular culture and capable of speaking in slang. I just don’t know how he managed to interact with other kids in the eighties without reciting lines like “Use the force” and “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” Similarly, I’ve heard rumors about a gay man living outside Boston who had not seen The Wizard of Oz until he was in his mid-forties—and when he did, it was by accident. He didn’t even realize what he was watching. He was heard to say, “What a strange movie. The girl—Diane? Dolly?—I didn’t care for her, but I liked that man made out of metal.” I can’t imagine how he knew he was a “friend of Dorothy” without knowing who Dorothy was. One would even have a hard time calling themselves “American” without having seen these two films, as well as a handful of other pictures: Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, ET, Titanic. For my part, I don’t know how I managed to celebrate Christmas in the United States without ever having seen It’s a Wonderful Life.
Like The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Lifewas not considered a success when it was first released; it received a bunch of Oscar nominations and then faded into obscurity, only to be rediscovered and rehabilitated decades later. With Life, it was a copyright fluke that resurrected the film into popular consciousness. The movie entered public domain in 1974, and was therefore free for local TV stations to air whenever they liked. In the eighties, the movie was often on several stations at the same time during Christmas and it developed a reputation as one of the greatest films of all time (Pauline Kael, in one of her more understated moments, thought that this turn of events was “bewildering”). In the nineties, Republic Pictures won back the copyright and now only NBC can show the movie once a year. But it lives on in DVD players and VCRs around the world, and nearly every Christmas-themed movie or television show made in the last twenty years explicitly or implicitly references the film. Not only is it loved for its familiarity—which seems to be the only reason anyone watches The Sound of Music—but it’s one of the great tear-jerkers, and will probably be named America’s Most Inspiring Film by the AFI this spring. This truly scares me.
I finally saw the movie last night, and I wish I hadn’t. It was enormously depressing. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, acting up a storm) is the most dutiful, self-sacrificing man in the town of Bedford Falls. He takes over his father’s small-time savings-and-loan business instead of seeing the world and following his dreams. He lets his brother leave town, who then becomes a war hero. He gives his honeymoon money to his poor customers. He helps his poor friends buy houses instead of trying to make a profit. When his uncle loses the business’s weekly deposit, it paves the way for George’s arch-enemy, the devious capitalist archetype Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), to succeed in his efforts to take over the town. George, deeply depressed, contemplates jumping off a bridge, but his guardian angel appears and shows him what the world would have been like if George had never been born. George realizes he wants to live and runs home screaming, “Merry Christmas!”
The tears flow in the final scene when George’s karma comes back to kiss him. He’s been such a nice guy for so long, and given so much of himself to others, that when he’s in deep shit, everyone shows up to help him. The angel says, “Remember, George—no man is a failure who has friends.” George’s life is wonderful because he gave up everything to help his friends and his friends reciprocated when George was in need. It’s not surprising that the FBI thought the movie was communist propaganda is the 50s—it’s the story of proletarian solidarity in the face of capitalist abuse. If you would like to see the film reenacted in 30 second by bunnies, click here.
I wish that It’s a Wonderful Life really was a subversive film made by Soviet agents. But if that were the case, Mr. Potter would have been lynched, and his bank raided and burned by the townspeople. But Potter doesn’t suffer at the end; in fact, he gets away with stealing the money George’s uncle lost. The movie is hardly revolutionary. Instead, it’s propaganda for the status quo, for forsaking individualism and accepting your role in life. Frank Capra, who directed the film, is often criticized for favouring sentimentality and happy endings, but the tearfully happy ending of It’s a Wonderful Life is false. Like the sudden, brief clarity exhibited by coma patients on L-DOPA, George believes he may have escaped ruin—but, in fact, he’s still in a position where he cannot realize his dreams. His funeral will have a thousand mourners, but George will never have seen the world. That’s reason enough for tears, as is the film’s omnipresence and cultural power. George should have jumped.
Ted Gideonse lives in San Diego and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Read more columns by Ted Gideonse.