It’s hard to admit it, but I cry like a child every time.
Admit it: so do you.
Of course, I’m talking about the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. We’ve all seen it so many times that it’s a movie-length cliche. It’s the hokey ending that solves all the problems in one beautiful bow, the sort of thing that never happens in real life. From his barstool on Cheers, eternal grump Norm groused that during the many times in his life that he’s been in trouble, no one ever came to his door with a sackful of cash to bail him out.
It’s a Wonderful Life is certainly dated, if that is a crime. It has its flaws of logic and characterization. For all of Mary’s strength and self-assuredness in the original timeline, where is it in the alternate timeline? Are we to assume that her strength came only from her relationship with her husband, when she certainly showed it long before she became Mrs. George Bailey?
Is it entirely logical that all the good people of Bedford Falls would have become a seedy crowd of rabble-rousing drunkards without a Building and Loan? While loss, privation and grief would certainly change a person’s nature, is it likely that every single person would become angry and suspicious?
Perhaps, perhaps not. But I can live with this.
My main problem has always been Potter, of course. He gets away with the lost $8,000, essentially framing George Bailey for his own accidental embezzlement — remember, Mr. Potter is on the board of directors, so he is stealing from his own company, not just from George.
For the record, $8,000 in 1945 is the equivalent of $115,657 in 2020 dollars. We’re definitely in felony territory.
Saturday Night Live solved that one for us, of course. Five minutes after the movie ends, they say, Uncle Billy finally remembers where the money went and the whole crowd storms over to Potter’s mansion to beat the snot out of him. Catharsis.
But this movie is more than the standard Frank Capra Vaseline-on-the-camera-lens glorification of small-town American life — what they used to call “Capra-corn.”
The people of Bedford Falls are not perfect, and this is not Mayberry.
Mr. Gower did, in fact, come close to killing a child patient while drunk and beat George until he bled from the ear. The bank president and Bailey Building and Loan trustees are responsible for kowtowing to Potter and essentially handing the town’s economy over to his unfettered control. During the Depression sequence, the friendly citizens were all too quick to panic and demand their money — taking George’s personal savings — because they were scared.
George’s brother Harry goes off to his perfect life and reneges on his promise, leaving his older brother to stagnate in their old hometown in full knowledge of his unhappiness. Mary and Mrs. Bailey play a few manipulative games to try to “catch” George into marriage. Sam Wainwright is obnoxious as a kid and obnoxious as a wealthy man, mocking George “all in good fun.”
Uncle Billy… do I even need to say that Billy should never be in any kind of financial position of power or influence? And it is never made exactly clear what sort of “trouble” Violet is in that requires leaving town with a personal loan from George.
Even our hero George, when faced with the final adversity, takes it out on his family in harsh, hurtful words and a fit of temper, destroying his models while his children cower in fear. We try to dismiss his anger because we know the awful pressure on him, but often the things people say in anger are the things they truly mean. So when George yells at Mary, “You call this a happy family? Why did we have to have all these kids?” I wonder where people got the idea that it’s all sunshine and roses in Bedford Falls.
George is also a drunk driver. Not content with taking out his frustration on his child’s teacher, his wife and his children, he crashes his car into a tree in a sodden stupor, lucky not to kill himself or anyone else.
It’s that very depth of character that makes it real. Small towns are never populated with saints — there is ugliness and cruelty and ignorance and lust and selfishness, the same as in large cities. Modern American cinema has made an entire genre out of displaying the two-faced darkness of suburbia, whether it’s for laughs (The ‘Burbs), ennui (American Beauty) or genuine horror (Arlington Road, The Stepford Wives, many many more).
Once upon a time, I could enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life for its traditions and subtle humor, for the beauty of Frank Capra’s vision, for the incredible and nuanced performance of Jimmy Stewart. Playing a man from his youthful exuberance to the crestfallen young man to the exhausted father to the bitter man on the brink of suicide, and back again.
Sometimes we forget that cliches begin with something truly memorable, so good that it is repeated and imitated and finally lampooned into meaninglessness.
It reaches another layer of impact when you know the backstory behind Jimmy Stewart’s performance in It’s a Wonderful Life. Film historian Robert Matzen told the Chicago Tribune that Stewart suffered from what they called “shell shock” in the 1940s, and we know to be post-traumatic stress disorder: Stewart had “just started to eat again” when filming began, and he had turned down multiple offers to dramatize his war service because he didn’t want to relive it. It’s a Wonderful Life was his Hail Mary at his career, and Matzen believes it fueled the rage and bitterness that George Bailey shows in the latter half of the film.
Stewart kept postponing the famous kissing scene with Donna Reed, telling Capra, “A fella forgets how to do these things, ya know.” Finally Capra made him do it, and halfway through the emotion simply overcame both actors and they threw out a whole page of dialogue and kissed, passionately and powerfully enough for us to believe the love that shines between them for the rest of the film.
But it’s Norm on his barstool that comes to mind often as I watch the money spill out on the table in George Bailey’s living room. Norm, who grouses into his beer that no one ever came to his rescue.
Because I have a different perspective on it than Norm. Once upon a time, I was in trouble, at the end of my metaphorical rope as a single mother with sudden, unexpected expenses and no resources and a child dependent upon me for everything. But several someones came to my rescue. The town showed up, with metaphorical and literal cash, and the day was saved. My one regret was that I was never able to gather my helpful angels in one room, pour the wine, sing the song, and ring the bell for them.
I was the richest woman in town, because of my friends. And I am blessed with them — with you — this year and every year.
I’ve seen it happen. It happened for me. And for others. I’ve seen people band together to save a struggling business, to save a family in need, to pay a medical bill, to repair a car needed for work. I’ve written the stories about the anonymous person who set up a Charlie Brown Christmas tree by the side of the road and the presents collected under it went to needy children. I’ve seen people reach out to total strangers who are lonely in this most awful year. We see a line of trucks park across an interstate under a bridge to prevent a man from jumping to his death. Random passers-by pull a pilot from his downed plane or a woman from her burning car.
They’re the people who put together meals for the housebound, who volunteer for art hour at the library, who knit scarves and mittens for the homeless and destitute. It’s the bookstore owner forced to close for the pandemic, but instead donates children’s books to the local cafe to distribute for free to children stuck at home at Christmas — as well as the random stranger who donated a $100 bill toward the project, and the cafe itself, which gives away free oatmeal or a cup of soup to those in need, no questions asked.
There are no statues for these people, and often no memorials or plaques to their names. Yet their influence lives on.
As Margaret Mead said, never doubt that one thoughtful, committed person can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.
It’s not the money that brings the tears to our eyes, folks. It’s the whole town, gathered in one room, celebrating the importance that one man had to their lives. It’s the sense of a community banding together around one of its own, not out of pity, but out of joy and friendship and charity in the truest sense of the word.
Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t happen. Only the Potters believe everyone is just out for themselves and nobody cares for anyone else. Only the Potters say, “You’re worth more dead than alive.” The rest of us know better, because we stand together. Together we are more than we are alone. The richest people in town.
I wish the happiest of holidays to you, to your family of blood and your family of choice. Whatever you celebrate, may it bring you joy and peace, and may next year ring in with better things for us all.
This column was last updated in December 2020.