‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Is 75 and as Timely as Ever

It’s a wonderful life It is an odd candidate for the “Classical Christmas Music” category. The plot of the film revolves around the consideration of the main character as suicide. And the story of George Bailey, a family man with financial and existential problems, doesn’t come out noticeably on Christmas until the very last seconds. “I didn’t think of it as a Christmas story when I first came across it,” director Frank Capra later said. “I just liked the idea.”

The film’s current popularity was accidental in some ways: it was met with mixed reviews when it premiered in 1946 and fell at the box office. The film existed for decades until 1974, when it altered the fate of the film, likely with written oversight: the film’s 28-year copyright period expired because the studio that owned it failed to remake it for a second. It’s a wonderful life It entered the public domain, and television networks, taking advantage of their new royalty-free status, began broadcasting them. Repeatedly. And in the end, as it sometimes happens, repetition led to love.

It’s a wonderful life He turns 75 this year, and is now adorable both because and despite the fact that it’s about a guy who’s convinced by a cute angel that the world is better because he’s in it. I remembered the movie as a careless mixture of genres and characters: comedy, tragedy, magical realism, a celestial being arranged by second-rate angels and named Clarence Oddbody. I understood it through George’s descent from would-be adventurer to reluctant entrepreneur, as a meditation on shattered dreams – an argument that growth is, in part, adjusting the hopes you have for the dreams you might come to hang on.

But while watching the movie this year, I found that it happened quite differently. It reads darker. What struck me this time was the way dreams died: they were quenched not in an instant, but by repeated extravagance. George, played by James Stewart, is a hero whose journey often gets stuck in the “test” phase of things. He tries hard to take adventures away from his small town; Circumstances, time and time again, keep him at home. The repetitive nature of his trials seems particularly acute at the moment. A pandemic that, earlier this year, looked like it might be under control, is re-emerging with a new variant. The opportunity leaders would have had to do the bare minimum to forestall the upheaval of the planet once again is gone. American democracy, constantly new and fragile, is under threat once again. George Bailey wasn’t just George Bailey; It has always doubled as a collection of American metaphors for sure. This year, however, sounds like an omen.

The first thing the public learns about George is that he possesses substantial heroism. As a child, he saved his younger brother, Harry, from drowning after breaking the ice of a pond they were skating on. George, without thinking, dived in; Long live Harry. George came out with an infection that made him deaf in one ear. And then the rhythm that defines so much of the film – the circumstances that require his sacrifice – begins. George dreams of traveling around the world; He wants to grow the scale of being bigger than life in Bedford Falls can handle. His initial plans for an adventure were curtailed, at the last minute, because his father had suffered a stroke. Remains. Soon, George is about to leave for college. Minutes before he was due to leave—the cab was parked outside—he learned that the family business, Bailey Bros. Building & Loan, you will not survive unless he takes over the presidency of the company. George doesn’t care about finances, but he does what needs to be done. stay again. Later, as he was leaving for his honeymoon—he and his wife Mary were in the cab this time—he saw a crowd in front of Billy Bros’ office. There is a run on the banks. Everyone wants their money back.

The film is a relic of an America seriously animated by notions of sacrifice and the common good. (RKO/Getty Images)

Once again: George is doing what he has to do. He lives in Bedford Falls. sacrifice again. The circumstances are transverse. For George, though, they amount in large part to the film’s meaningless flexibility. It is tried and tested and tested, with a noticeable absence of relief or reward. The hero with a thousand faces stays with a thousand loan accounts.

the end of It’s a wonderful life It reliably makes me cry: Society bands together to save George, “Auld Lang Syne” sings in the Baileys’ living room, and moppet Zuzu Bailey reminds her father that “every time the bell rings, the angel gets his wings” — he’s mushy and drunk and I love him. This time, though, a much older scene brought tears. After George takes over the building and loan, he meets Harry, who went to college in place of his older brother, at the train station. After four years apart, Harry is going to Bedford Falls to take up the business: the brothers swap schedules, but both realize their dreams.

And then, at the station, Harry got off with his new wife, Ruth. George learns that Harry will take another job, with her father’s company, outside Bedford Falls. The camera zooms in on George’s face as he takes in the news, his expressions ranging from horror to panic to surrender to despair. For a moment, the perfect Capra summons Hitchcock. Then George readjusted his expression to a smile. He understands what the world expects of him: compliance, sacrifice, and resilience. Once again, he does his homework. At that moment, precisely, I found myself in tears.

Today, one might interpret George’s forced smile as evidence of emotional labor. One might see, in his dealings with the world, something vaguely feminine. It’s a wonderful lifeTo be clear, it’s not doing anything drastic specifically in terms of exploring gender identity. But it does, quite openly, examine power as a social force – who controls it and who withers under it. Other men in this world, including Harry and the ruthless capitalist Henry Potter, want things, and their desires direct their actions. They behave stereotypically masculine. They go out and realize their own version of George’s great dream: they are the moon lasso. Meanwhile, George’s life usually happens. The world is acting. reacts. But he has no other choice, as the movie suggests: his noble negativity fuels the greater good.

This is part of what makes It’s a wonderful life Very complex, not just as a classic, but as a story in itself. The film is fraught with a sense of ambient despair. It directs George’s awareness of his own powerlessness. It turns vulnerability into an environmental condition. Early on, when the Billy boys were skiing with their friends – an essential and useful winter pastime – what happens? The pond ice breaks. George and Mary dance at the graduation party joyously, breathlessly… until some men pulling a prank removed the ground from under their feet.

The movie is full of scenes like this: stability breaks, land gaps. Everyone – except perhaps Mr. Potter – is at risk. At one point Mary, in her borrowed bathrobe, was courting George merrily; The next day, with her robe slipped off, she was naked and hiding in the bushes. At one point, George’s mother laughs with his father. Hours later, Mr. Bailey had a stroke. It’s a wonderful life, despite its title, might train you to treat Joy itself as suspect: Joy, in this world, is often interrupted by tragedy.

Violence sometimes creeps into the film’s story as well – as a sign of wayward grief. Early on, Mr. Gower, the town’s apothecary, beat young George so badly that his ear bled: the older man received news of his son’s death of influenza. Later, George adult visits Mary after she returns from college. He is resistant: he knows he loves her and that his love for her will mean the end of his dreams of traveling the world. He ends up on a phone call with Mary and another of her suitors, their mutual friend, and the scene that resulted – their faces close, their fates hanging in the balance – is a piece of cinematic tradition. George finally gave in, silently admitting that he cared about Mary. But before he does that, he shakes her so hard that it makes her cry. “I want to do what I I want to!” he says angrily before kissing her.

George fixes himself. He gives up one dream of one who has never thought about his desire: a wife who reliably sees the bright side of their misfortunes, children loyal to him, a society full of people whose lives have become better because of him. Does this come to a happy ending? maybe. Seventy-five years later, It’s a wonderful life It can be understood as an exploration of some of America’s mightiest myths: that individual sacrifices would be rewarded; that capitalism can be controlled by people of good will; That the communities will gather at the time the credits are given. It can also be seen as putting forth the great man theory of history, which every man recognized: George’s presence, Clarence explains, changed everything—for his family, his town, his country. George Potter’s sacrifices prevented the capture of Bedford Falls. The continued existence of the building and loan allowed the residents of the community to purchase their own homes, rather than live as Potter tenants. Harry is fighting in World War II, and saving lives in the process – there to help others because George, all those years, has been there to help him.

The film is a hangover from post-depression and post-war America, and is seriously animated by notions of sacrifice and the common good. Her constant urgency, though, comes from her sense of how vulnerable everyone – even hero George Bailey – is to the vicissitudes of history. One moment, George is at a party, his adventures await him and his dreams await to be claimed…and the next day, the ground beneath him has receded. The movie suggests that the only thing he can do – the only thing that will keep him safe from despair – is to find a way, despite all that, to keep dancing.

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