Is It Such a Wonderful Life?

Rewatching a classic with my kids

I remember the first time I saw Frank Capra’s  “It’s a Wonderful Life” from beginning to end and it went from being “that old movie they show at Christmastime” to one of those works that stay with you for the rest of your life.  I don’t know how old I was–probably a teenager–but I think it was honestly the first movie that made me cry like a baby, tears streaming down my cheeks, the bittersweet happiness of the ending (nothing gets solved, the wrong doesn’t get righted, but none of that matters because there’s so much love) almost too much to bear.

I haven’t seen it through for years but when my daughter and I were looking for movies at the library, I realized I wanted to show it to my kids.   I wanted them to hear Capra’s message: “No man is poor who has friends” (a message, by the way, that gets made beautifully and more subtly in the documentary “King of Kongs,” which you should see if you haven’t yet).

I had told my kids it was a movie “about a man who finds out what the world would be like if hadn’t been born” and they were excited about the fantasy aspect of that–enough so to get over their deepseated suspicion of black and white movies.  Of course, I had forgotten that that part of the movie is just a tiny part of it.   An entire movie takes place before Clarence the angel even shows up.  And it’s far from the adorable bit of “Capra-Corn” that people make it out to be.

As I sat there, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” with my kids, I thought, My god, this is one of the darkest movies I’ve ever seen.

Oh, it’s not dark like, say 28 Days After–but then again, it’s much more realistic.  There are plenty of movies that use dark as atmosphere and blow things up and cut off people’s arms and all–but not many that with tender goodwill show you how growing up means surrendering all your ambitions and dreams , bit by bit, and settling for a life of pleasant mediocrity.

The beginning of “It’s a Wonderful Life” shows you a young George Bailey, filled with ambition and excitement: he’s going to travel around the world over the summer (earning his way by working on a boat), and then head off to college (which he’s had to postpone for four years to earn money for his family) and then embark on a career of designing modern buildings and mechanics.

For almost the entire rest of the movie, his dreams and hopes are systematically torn away from him.  First he can’t travel–his father dies and he needs to put his affairs in order.  Then he has to postpone going to college–the family banking business will only continue with a Bailey at the helm.  Then he can’t go to college at all, because his brother, who he was counting on to take his place at the bank, has a better future at another job.  Then the woman he loves ties him down even more: she says she never wants to leave their hometown, buys an old house, and proceeds to have four kids.  It’s also made clear to him that he can’t ever choose a career path that might make him powerful, famous, or wealthy: he’s stuck in the family business forever, never getting rich, always barely getting by, no hope for anything else in his future.

Do loving friends and family make up for the loss of all your dreams?

Well, yes, in the movie’s context they do.  Who wouldn’t get swept up in the outpouring of love and generosity that comes at the end of the movie?  You’ve got angels getting their wings, Zoo-Zoo reunited with her petals, everyone–even the nasty bank examiner–singing “Auld Lang Syne” together, and the assurance that George is now happy with his life because he’s seen what a huge effect he’s had on the world.

Only . . . the guy still never got to travel.  Or go to college.  Or design big buildings.   And the bitterness that erupts in the unbelievably realistic homecoming scene earlier in the movie–when he thinks he may have to go to jail for someone else’s mistake and is in such huge despair over what his life has been reduced to that he reams out his kid’s teacher then screams at his children and kicks over a table in his house–that bitterness was real.  It was the bitterness of diminished dreams and lost ambitions.

The thing is, most of us know that bitterness.  Maybe some of you have achieved everything you ever wanted and if so, brilliant.  But I’d say the majority of us reach our middle years with a sense that something’s passed us by, that we’ll never be one of the best and the brightest, that this life we’re living is all that we’ll ever know.   And that life may be pretty good.  It may be filled with loving families and decent jobs.  It may be successful . . . enough.   It’s only compared to the dreams we had when we were young that it’s maybe not quite enough, a bit of a compromise–even a loss.

So, once again . . . do loving family and friends make up for the loss of all your childhood dreams?  Of course they do.   They have to.  Because, like George Bailey–what else have we got?


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