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The AFI Top 100 Films: It’s a Wonderful Life (#11)

23 Jan

Entertainment 150It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore
Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra (screenplay) and Philip Van Doren Stern (story)
Directed by Frank Capra

Part of what makes It’s a Wonderful Life such an indelible movie is its inextricable tie to Christmas and the mood we all wish to be in during that holiday. We want to see the best in mankind, we want to believe that a community can come together to take care of one of its own when they’re in trouble, we want to believe that things turn out all right in the end. It’s a Wonderful Life indulges that desire in spades, giving us a bittersweet fable of small-town, picture-postcard America that’s at turns heartbreaking and life-affirming. It’s quite an interesting film, actually, when you think about it beyond its sentimentality.

James Stewart is George Bailey, a young man from the small town of Bedford Falls with a dream of traveling around the world. His family serves a vital function of the community; allowing the working poor to receive loans to start businesses and buy homes for themselves. Their nemesis is an old Wall St. type named Henry Potter (Barrymore), an exploitative slum lord who represents the ideal of the free market, I suppose. The only thing that stands in the way of his complete capitalist tyranny is the little Bailey Building and Loan Association.

George’s father has a stroke right when his brother graduates high school, which means he’s the only one who can run it — his brother isn’t ready and his father and uncle are both unfit now. He puts off his dream to sort out the mess, and his brother goes to college instead. When his brother returns, it’s with an enormous job offer that George knows he can’t turn down. He kills his dream of leaving Bedford Falls for the betterment of his brother, taking on the burden of running the Building and Loan by himself.

The pressure from Potter intensifies, especially after the market crash of 1929. George gives up more and more of his life, sacrificing the nest egg he had squirreled away for his honeymoon to prevent a run on the association. Meanwhile, his brother enlists during World War II, becomes a fighter pilot ace, travels the world and comes home to a hero’s welcome. On the day of the parade, George’s absent-minded uncle misplaces $8,000 of the bank’s money. Without that deposit, the Building and Loan is sunk and Potter wins.

Distraught, George berates his children and one of their teachers, yells at his wife, crashes his car and nearly commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. Here is the part of the story everyone knows — his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) comes down to show him a dystopian Bedford Falls where he had never been born to show him the difference he’s made in people’s lives. Filled with joy at knowing the effect of his good works, George races through the streets of Bedford Falls towards his home, just in time for a Christmas miracle of the community’s own making. It really is one of the finest, most touching endings in cinematic history. I’m not ashamed to admit it makes me cry, every time.

What makes the ending so effective is what makes the rest of the movie so interesting and surprisingly complex. A lot of people ding this movie for its sentimentality, claiming that it gives easy answers that wouldn’t quite fly in the real world, and I disagree. What makes George Bailey such an extraordinary hero isn’t just that he tries so hard to do the right thing — it’s that sometimes he actually fails to. He’s not a saint; it’s clear that he resents his family and his community because of the choices he feels he has to make, and he doesn’t take care to find an outlet for it. The final straw simply uncovers what was already there — a man who feels trapped by responsibilities that may or may not be his, by the burden of being the difference between people’s happiness and their oppression.

It’s completely understandable that George would feel this way; he’s regularly sacrificed his happiness for other people, and he never seems to get a break. The rest of the community shows their appreciation at times, but they’re also just people — subject to mob mentality, panic and petty thoughts. Most people don’t have the emotional fortitude that Bailey possesses, and it’s rather difficult to be fair-minded about people you’ve stuck out your neck for but end up taking the easy way far too often.

This is the problem of the idealist; the world really doesn’t mold itself to your ideals all that often. And that disappointment can lead to a sort of desperation, the attachment that something good must come of your beliefs and deeds. As that disappointment continues, it poisons into resentment.

What It’s a Wonderful Life does is remind us that we do make a difference with our actions, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. If we put goodness out into the world, it really does help. Life in Bedford Falls isn’t perfect, especially for George; his Building and Loan may be saved by the end of the movie, but it’s still stressed. He still has unfulfilled dreams that he’ll likely never be able to return to. He’s still surrounded by people who are prone to panic, small-mindedness and failing their own ideals. Nothing’s changed but his perception, and a newfound appreciation for the things that have gone right.

Capra has become known for his “perfect” Americana pieces, but I think this movie doesn’t quite get its due because of it. It’s a Wonderful Life shows us the worth of the transformative mindset, what happens when we let go of the expectation that good things will happen to us because we do good things. Karmic feedback rarely takes the form that we’re looking for, and success can take on a wide variety of definitions. George struggles, but he succeeds because his community does; they never would have been able to help him when he needed it most without his life lived helping them.

What makes me so enamored with that lesson is the idea that a life well-lived matters in ways we never see, but it also cautions us to take care of our own desires. Or at least, how we deal with them when they’re unfulfilled. We must pay attention to ourselves every once in a while if we’re to continue living our ideals.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful movie. For those of us who are community-minded, it’s a gem that justifies our beliefs and reminds us of the worth of the individual. There’s a lot going on underneath the candy-coated exterior of Bedford Falls, but isn’t that always the way of a small town?

 

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