#41 – It’s a Wonderful Life
The Plot In Brief: George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is a small town lad who dreams of leaving Bedford Falls and doing great things. A series of circumstances and accidents conspire to keep George Bailey right where he started—running his father’s local business, the Building and Loan. Along the way, he weds high-school sweetheart Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) and has four children.
Local rich pain-in-the-ass Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) tries repeatedly to buy the Building and Loan so he can wield all the economic power in Bedford Falls. George refuses to sell. George’s Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces some money, Potter finds and hides the money, and things look dark for the Baileys. How evil is Mr. Potter? The unfortunate lackey who must push him around in his wheelchair never utters a single word in the entire film. Clearly, Potter has cut out his tongue.
At the end of his rope and fearing a scandal, George Bailey wishes aloud that he were dead. Guardian angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) conveniently arrives to show George the grim hellscape of a world into which he had never been born. Did the Pope mention that this film is widely considered a family Christmas classic?
“Goat,” writing for the website Ruthless Reviews, opines, “Where to begin? This movie was a colossal flop at the box office, but somehow, decades later, Frank Capra’s effort at man’s inhumanity to a movie is a highly revered Christmas tradition... This movie is drecky, sappy, overly long and a real burden to watch. This wreck of a movie is the very embodiment of America’s gullibility and willingness to adopt sentimental hogwash, regardless of how unwatchable. IMDB (sic) [sic] voters have catapulted this movie to an unimaginable 8.7 out of 10,voting it to be one of the greatest movies of all time. I know, unbelievable.”
Where to begin, indeed? Goat assumes, as some people still do, that box office performance is some indication of quality. It is not, nor has it ever been. Citizen Kane was a bust at the box office. So were innumerable films that lived on to breathe a second life on television and home video. Second, I do not understand the phrase “Frank Capra’s effort at man’s inhumanity to a movie.” I just cannot understand the syntax here, and in the words of Cardinal Patrick Bromley, “You can’t just say words.” I honestly cannot speak to Goat’s charge that the movie “overlong;” I have never found it tedious or plodding. Time is subjective.
Andrew Gilchrist, writing for The Guardian, also has a bone to pick with the film. He reminds us, “… there’s that misplaced money. Uncle Billy, who works with George, takes $8,000 in cash along to the bank. That’s the equivalent of about $130,000 today. And he just sort of dodderingly counts it out and then accidentally puts it inside a newspaper and then accidentally puts that newspaper on baddie Mr. Potter’s lap. I mean really? It’s a scene that is as staggeringly unconvincing as it is badly shot, about as believable as George lasso-ing the moon. And the whole film hinges on it. True, up until that point, the fact that Uncle Billy is one loan short of a portfolio has been Very Loudly Telegraphed, but this only makes it worse, transferring the blame to George for trusting such a glaring buffoon with a fortune in cash.”
Many of the film’s critics have a big problem with Uncle Billy losing the money. I think this is problematic for several reasons. Saying that a plot point is unrealistic is a fair criticism, but since Uncle Billy is shown to be absentminded, it makes sense that he might lose something. Is Gilchrist objecting to the idea that George would trust sweet, scatterbrained Uncle Billy with a pile of money? Perhaps—but doesn’t that indicate that Gilchrist has been drawn into the narrative and empathizes with George so much that he can’t stand to see him make this mistake? Perhaps Gilchrist is blaming his frustration on the film, instead of blaming his frustration on the fact that he is human capable of feelings. This reminds me of freshman literature students who dream up absurd ways to “save” Romeo and Juliet’s lives when reading the Shakespeare play because they don’t want it to end tragically. If only Juliet had woken up in time! If only Uncle Billy had not lost the money! Gilchrist is mad at George (or at Uncle Billy) and transfers this anger to the film itself.
But Uncle Billy losing the money is not the problem. The problem is Mr. Potter finding the money and not immediately giving it back. Potter isn’t just a “scurvy little spider,” as George Bailey calls him early in the film; Potter is a thief. If Mr. Potter were a decent person, he would shout, “Hey dumb Billy—you dropped this!” and the film would immediately end. In both of the criticisms cited above, I feel that It’s a Wonderful Life has touched the critic in a way he does not wish to be touched, and the critic is reacting against that. Goat senses sentimentality and genuine human emotion and rejects it like a bad kidney. Gilchrist might actually be so enmeshed in the narrative that a minor plot point drives him to tear his hair in frustration. In both cases, I believe the criticism can serve as a testament to the real power of this film.
No one has ever discussed the bitter pill hiding in this holiday cookie as well as Rich Cohen, writing for Salon.com; he answers any critics’ objections more eloquently than I ever could. Cohen knows what It’s a Wonderful Life is really about: “Look again at the closing frames — shots of Jimmy Stewart staring at his friends. In most, he’s joyful. But in a few, he’s terrified. As I said, this is a terrifying movie. An hour earlier George was ready to kill himself. He has now returned from a death experience [….]
“George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn’t know it. Because he was seeing the world through his eyes — not as it was, but as he was: honest and fair. But (while viewing a world in which he has never been born), George is nothing and nobody. When the angel took him out of his life, he took him out of his consciousness, out from behind his eyes. It was only then that he saw America. Bedford Falls was the fantasy. Pottersville is where we live. If you don’t believe me, examine the dystopia of the Capra movie — the nighttime world of neon bars and drunks and showgirl floozies. Does Bedford Falls feel more like the place you live, or does Pottersville? I live in a place that looks very much like Bedford Falls, but after 10 minutes in line at the bank or in the locker room where the squirts are changing for hockey I know I’m in Pottersville.”
"In nomine Patrici, et Capra, and a Merry Christmas to all, Amen.”