It’s a Dark Life
When I was a kid, this was the time of year when Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, played on TV at least once a day—and usually more—every day, from Thanksgiving until Christmas. In the public domain thanks to a clerical error, It’s a Wonderful Life represented cost-free advertising revenue for cable and broadcast stations, so they played it 24-7 and raked in the cash. Then, in maneuvers worthy of the movie’s greedy villain, Mr. Potter, various corporations sued and negotiated in the 1990s to put it once again under copyright, and to license broadcast rights to only one network, NBC, which now shows it exactly twice every year.
Never again will It’s a Wonderful Life be part of the national conscience as it was in my youth, and I predict that fewer and fewer people will gather ’round their TV sets to relive the movie’s unforgettable story of a man driven by a lifetime of broken dreams to attempt suicide on Christmas Eve, only to be saved by the intercession of his guardian angel.
I got to thinking about It’s a Wonderful Life thanks to a December 1 essay in the online edition of First Things magazine, in which writer Joe Carter contrasts the hero of that film, George Bailey, with Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (1943). I’ve never read The Fountainhead and don’t intend to (if you read Whittaker Chambers’ biting 1957 review of Rand’s other famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, you don’t need to read anything by Rand), but I found Carter’s take on It’s a Wonderful Life particularly intriguing.
George Bailey is a dark, complex, and infinitely interesting character, wrote Carter, who correctly argued that It’s a Wonderful Life “is not a simplistic morality play” that “ends on a happy note late on Christmas Eve, when George is saved from ruin.” Indeed, “On Christmas Day he’ll wake to find that his life is not so different than it was when he wanted to commit suicide.”
Such an analysis may strike fans of the movie as a bit off, given that, on a certain level, it is a cornball movie. It’s a Wonderful Life has corny dialogue, corny humor, slapstick, hijinks and low-jinks. But beneath all that, it also is a very dark film. Opening with George’s friends praying that he can be found before he does the unthinkable, death hangs over it, and each death, even the deaths George prevents, sends him in directions he does not want to go, pulling him further and further from his dreams and ambitions, turning him into every bit the “warped, frustrated young man” that Mr. Potter says he is.
It’s a Wonderful Life has been called a paean to small town life and values, but George wants nothing to do with his one-stoplight town, or its values. “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world,” he says to young Mary Hatch. “And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”
But the night before George’s departure, his father dies, forcing George to take over the family business, a “penny-ante building and loan.” He gives his trip and college money to his younger brother Harry, whose life he had saved when they were boys. Harry becomes a college football hero and then starts a successful career. All of George’s friends have similar professional success, while he gets locked into the building and loan, scraping by on a meager salary in a miserable job. The one bright spot in his life is that he marries Mary Hatch, who gives him four children. But his bitterness blocks his ability to appreciate this gift. “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids!” he rages on Christmas Eve.
What does George think about as he lies awake late at night? Does he resent that he saved his brother’s life? Does he hate his father for saddling him with the family business by dying? Does he resent that his wife chose him, a failure, when she could have had any man in town?
It’s a Wonderful Life takes George (and the viewer) to the very brink of hell, then literally dives right in, and you have to wonder that it took a major financial crisis to get George to that bridge on Christmas Eve. He could have gone any time.
Capra wrote the part of George for James Stewart, casting him against type. Stewart is primarily known for his many “aw shucks” roles, but Alfred Hitchcock cast him to play dark, troubled characters in a number of his films. Quite possibly, Hitchcock gained a special insight into Stewart’s acting ability from watching It’s a Wonderful Life.
I disagree with Carter in one point, where he wrote, “Surely, the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.” First, to reduce It’s a Wonderful Life to one “core message” is to detract from its overall scope. It will mean different things to different people. But I will say this: that anyone who has ever suffered through a severe spiritual or moral crisis should study this movie closely, because it will speak to you. Contrary to Carter, I think that everyone who sees it can grasp its layered themes in some fundamental way, even if they can’t fully articulate those themes—hence, its enduring popularity.
I have heard some people mock the denouement for being too cornball. But it is not cornball. It is the opposite of cornball. It is what J.R.R. Tolkien called Eucatastrophe: the sudden, joyous turn, such as Christ’s resurrection after his death on the cross. “Strange, isn’t it?” George’s guardian angel says to him, “each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Don’t wait for NBC to broadcast It’s a Wonderful Life this year. Rent or buy it, and watch it with your family.