Reprint of my blogcritics article, Many Choices of George Bailey. Press more to read the entirety of the article.
After reading Dan Green’s post on It’s a Wonderful Life, I had to respond (especially because I watched parts of it again on TV last night).
I too initially recoiled at the sentimentality and emotional manipulation of the ending the first time I saw it.
I once saw it with American Peace Corps volunteers in Albania near Christmas (right before a financial scandal was about to hit the country (see my travel essay on it ). These Peace Corps volunteers were going to help local banks develop sound credit policies; they admired the resourcefulness of George Bailey’s banking procedures. On the other hand, other free market commentators have expressed admiration for Potters’ company notwithstanding Potter’s own corruption. On another night, I once gave a European girlfriend the choice of watching with me Wonderful Life or Casablanca. After I briefly described the plots of both films, she chose Casablanca over Wonderful Life, which (in retrospect) didn’t portend well for the relationship itself (which was based more on romance than commitment). One sign a film has become a cultural icon is when memories about watching a film are more vivid than the film itself.
Watching random scenes today, i remember with fondness the “telephone kiss” scene, which stands in my mind as one of the great kisses in American cinema.
The film’s quaintness arises from its fairy tale qualities (angels, etc), and the fact that the town’s fate is portrayed as too dependent on do gooder George. The moralizing can appear heavy-handed and melodramatic. On the other hand, the decision NOT to let Potter’s knowledge of the money’s whereabouts be publicly exposed was a marvelous directorial decision. It conveys the idea that good doesn’t always conquer evil but merely outlasts it. It causes the film to focus not on the injustice/evil question but the more interesting question of how life choices offer unexpected dividends. The credit/debit analogy no longer applies; George Bailey’s can no longer estimate the cost of overcoming adversity. Because Bailey (and other mortals) don’t possess this “divine calculator” to know the true chain of consequences, he can only let his choices be guided by instinct and personal values. And a desire to do the right thing.
The film presents us with options and lets George Bailey choose his dreams. He could have gone travelling and let his father’s business falter; he could have abandoned the girl down the block who loved him; he could have let misfortune bring him to self-destruction. Going back to the telephone kiss, he walked back to the girl’s house, annoyed that she was so solicitious and that people were badgering him to pursue her. He rebelled (and actually acted rudely to her), though in the end, when he saw her tears and sorrow, he relented.
George Bailey is someone who changes, who is attuned to dreams and misfortunes of others (much as they are to his own). The film validates the necessity of compromising in life, not as a form of “sellout” but as a way of protecting the values one holds dearest.
It’s interesting to compare with Christmas Carol, which frames another fate v. freedom conflict. When the three ghosts visit him, his fate seems inevitable. But by framing it as a dream, the story gives Scrooge another opportunity, another lease on life, another chance to atone for his previous oversights.
Finally, the question of “what would the town be like if…” is a great deliberative question, and no person can leave the theatre without pondering what impact (if any) he or she has made on people around him. Movies that can leave us thinking are capable of great things. Such is the case of Wonderful Life.
One more thing. This is a sentimental philosophical story, and so is Christmas Carol, but there is no intrinsic reason to pair these two with the Christmas holiday. The central concern of both stories is not Christmas itself but the individual’s alienation from ritual holiday sentiment that blankets our world like snow (or propaganda).
Robert Nagle (aka idiotprogrammer) runs several weblogs and writes fiction under various pseudonyms. He lives in Houston, which experienced snowfall for the first time in 10 years on Christmas eve.