Classic films tend to evoke a decidedly mixed response from me at first blush. On the one hand, I’m drawn to them. I find myself enticed to not only find out what all the fuss is about, but to consume one more piece of our national zeitgeist. Seeing a film that’s as sewn into fabric of our popular culture as It’s a Wonderful Life gives me a connection both to the scores of other people who’ve seen the film and to the America that only exists in Norman Rockwell paintings.
That connection creates a yearning for an idyllic past that never existed beyond the original celluloid. It’s perpetuated annually as families gather ’round for another holiday rebroadcast. I don’t mean this as a knock against the film. In harmony with the story of the movie itself, the viewer can see something that might have been, but never was, and use it to gain a bit of perspective. It creates a connection to the myriad individuals who find themselves reaching for that same popular myth — real people united by a shared, imaginary reference point.
Despite this, and perhaps because of this, I also watch these films with an unavoidable air of skepticism. We live in an age that thrives on and revels in the slaughter of sacred cows. Irony, sarcasm, and cynicism are the order of the day, and I am hard-pressed to resist. I do my best to keep an open mind going into these movies, but there’s a part of me that invariably has to be tamped down — a part that’s perpetually prepared to ask, “what’s the big deal?”
It’s the same part that makes me roll my eyes at the heart-on-your-sleeve sentimentality of certain movies, both new and old. There is, of course, a place for the films that involve fairly transparent efforts to tug at one’s heartstrings. And I am not above enjoying their simple reassurances. But in the end, those overtly sentimental pictures are like a piece of cake with extra frosting — undeniably sweet but largely just empty calories and meant to be acknowledged as an indulgence.
In the same way, It’s a Wonderful Life has something of a dual identity. It is first and foremost a venerated classic known for being filled to the brim with the holiday spirit. Replayed endlessly each December, the film’s most iconic scene is its last one. George Bailey is surrounded by his friends and family on Christmas, and they all sing carols, bask in the afterglow of their victory over evil, and help an angel earn his wings. George’s love of life has been rekindled amidst an outpouring of community support. It’s a picture of warmth, happiness, and joy to the world.
And that one scene has all but consumed the public’s perception of the film. When you parse out its iconic status, you find that it’s come to stand for the warm fuzzies of the holiday season, with little concern for the movie’s more complicated tale.
Yet, as is the wont of the Millennials, modern looks back at the film have either rejected the spiritual sweetness the film has come to represent or delved deeper to reveal the not-so-hidden darkness in a story that is far more complex than its final scene might portend.
The New York Times’ Wendell Jamieson recasts It’s a Wonderful Life as “a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams.” The AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo traces the depths of the film’s darkest scene, characterizing it as “one of the grimmest, most despairing portraits of middle-class compromise ever produced by Hollywood.” Somewhat more whimsically, Salon’s Gary Kamiya offers a retort to the alternate version of Bedford Falls that the film posits as a cautionary tale, noting that Pottersville “offers a rich variety of nightlife and entertainment” and, in a word, “rocks!”
These more piercing reviews and attempts to measure a work’s lessons as applied to the modern age have become the norm. Old movies can take on new meanings in different times. To wit, the way the film’s antagonist, Mr. Potter, embodies the trope of the heartless, money-grubbing banker resonates in a world where the economy is still reeling from a global financial crisis and bankers have shouldered much of the blame. On the other hand, our current economic woes do not necessarily paint a sterling picture for George Bailey either. A modern viewer may cringe to think of the problems that stemmed from well-meaning individuals issuing loans to people for houses they could not really afford. A new look at an old film can cut both ways, in favor of the sarcastic rejection or the earnest embrace.
But I’d posit that if there’s a middle ground between the Capra-corn of the traditional perspective and the cynical views toward It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s that the film’s message can be boiled down to the idea that there are unexpected and unseen consequences for every action.
Today, the Bedford Falls that George Bailey worked so hard to preserve is likely a deteriorating town whose treasured community dissipated when its manufacturing jobs did the same. Nevertheless, maybe George Bailey’s grandchildren had the foundation of a supportive town of close-knit individuals to help them find new communities elsewhere, a foundation that might have crumbled in a more prosperous, but also more mercenary Pottersville. On the other hand, maybe Pottersville would have stayed afloat as a miniature mecca of gambling and entertainment while Bedford Falls would have continued to leak both jobs and residents. When the film ends, George Bailey may have saved the town, but a decade later, he may have merely delayed the inevitable. We simply don’t know.
The traditional, and I would argue intended, lesson of the film is that one man can make a difference, and that the type of success and achievement that can be lasso’d from George Bailey’s brand of self-sacrifice cannot always be measured in dollars or prestige, but is no less valuable. The cynical reply is that this movie isn’t about a triumph; it’s a about a tragedy. The most tragic element of it is that the depths of George Bailey’s despair are lost not just on the audience, but on George himself, who returns to his potentially doomed yet blissfully ignorant state.
But I’d like to think there’s a midpoint between these two views. Maybe the singing hordes of Bedford Falls are a welcome but incommensurate consolation when compared to the life that George Bailey had given up. Maybe whatever hardships that come from raising a family in a small town can bring joys that far outweigh the outbursts of anger in one crestfallen moment. Maybe Pottersville with its rambunctiousness and loose morals is a better place than the Hays code could stomach and maybe New Bedford with its wholesomeness and community is not as bad or asphyxiating as its detractors might claim.
But maybe the biggest part of the equation is that we don’t know what the future might hold. And moreover, it’s unknowable. We see a glimpse of a world where George Bailey never existed, but never one where he simply made different choices in his life. What if he had gone off to college? What if he had invested in plastics with Sam Wainright? What if he had taken Potter’s job offer? Who knows what might have happened? Maybe there could have been a middle ground between being shackled to the drudgery of the Building and Loan and sentencing New Bedford to Potter’s unfeeling, tyrannical whims.
Maybe the lesson to take from the film is that there are trade-offs for every choice: George’s left ear for his brother’s life; having your one true love in exchange for losing your financial security; a chance at your wildest dreams at the expense of the town and the people who made that possible. None of these choices are easy, and moreover, none of them come with the luxury of guardian angel to tell you how they work out.
Knowing that can make having to choose more daunting. “What if I’ve left the best opportunity on the table? What if I’m hurting the people I care about? What if I’m simply out of my depth?” Yet it also makes those decisions less overwhelming because no one knows the answers to those questions. Everyone is making their best guess. Everyone is muddling through as well as they can. Everyone is rolling the dice, from life’s biggest decisions to the tiny choices we make every day.
And that kind of uncertainty is oddly calming in a way. There’s rarely, if ever, a perfect choice to be made. Every path we choose in life comes with its expected benefits and unintended consequences. Whether or not it offers a cinematic shortcut, It’s a Wonderful Life acknowledges the murkiness of the future and offers a rejoinder — that it’s the people and relationships in our lives that make them meaningful, even worth living, despite that uncertainty. No matter what choices we make in life, and no matter where those choices take us, there is a joy to be had in the loved ones with whom we share the journey.
The detractors are right to roll their eyes a bit when George Bailey is toasted as “the richest man in town.” That last scene washes over a sublime darkness which permeates the film, a darkness that is belied by the talking constellations in its introduction and its equally cloying climax. It comes from the roads that George Bailey might have taken, but which are now closed off to him. To modern eyes, it also comes from a potentially crushing naivete George possesses with respect to his circumstances. Despite all of that, despite the tradeoffs and uncertainty and lost chances, at the end of the movie George Bailey is rightfully happy. He is happy because of the loving, caring people in life, and the relationships and connections he has fostered with them.
That is an opportunity open to almost all of us. If there’s a fair, fully amenable lesson for the holiday season to take from this film, it’s to cherish the friends and family who enrich our lives, and remember that they are the port in this storm of uncertainty. Whatever choices we make, whatever opportunities we lose or gain, they give color to an otherwise black and white world. No, George Bailey’s life is not the best it could possibly be, but he loves and is loved, and that, in the end, still makes it pretty wonderful.