Back when I was a teaching assistant, one of the theories of interpretation held that texts had infinite possibilities for interpretation, and were capable of being interpreted any number of ways. I used to tell my students that, yes, it was possible that a text could have any number of interpretations, but that did not mean it could have just any interpretation. Sometimes, an interpretation is just plain wrong.
I thought about this when I saw that Dale Price had linked to an article reappraising the old classic, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. This article is fairly innocuous in its call to have a more nuanced interpretation of the old classic, as compared to others, which claim the film is possessed of a tremendous darkness, citing hatred George had for his life, even how each and every step he took even though it helped others, merely nailed his feet to the ground of Bedford Falls. One reinterpretation I once read even claimed that Bedford Falls would have been better off economically without George Bailey, for the manufacturing economy he favoured and fostered in Bedford Falls would not have survived the economic turndowns of the nineties and recent years, and a town like Pottersville would have fared much better through the Depressions of recent years. That someone would seriously suggest the town would be better off with an economy based on brothels, strip clubs, speakeasies, a huge crime rate, and a police force that fires haphazardly into crowds is more an indictment of the speaker's ideals than of George Bailey's.
The author of the article to which Dale Price links asks questions which seems to bolster the interpretation which says that the movie is complicated and darker than perhaps may be seen at first blush.
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?
The conclusion to this line of questioning comes fairly early in the article: “On Christmas Day he’ll wake to find that his life is not so different than it was when he wanted to commit suicide.”
With this the author has stepped outside of the realm of interpretation, and moved into imposition. It is a cynicism imposed upon the film, not inherent in it. The author has missed what I like to call THE POINT OF THE ENTIRE MOVIE. As I told my students, this is not an interpretation the movie can hold, for it ignores the one simple fact the movie brings out in stunning clarity: The George Bailey who awakes on Christmas morn is not the George Bailey who sought to end his hated existence the night before.
What has happened is that George has come to love his life. All his life he has wanted to make his mark upon the world, carve George was Here in ways no one could ignore, by building skyscrapers a hundred stories tall, or bridges a mile long. What Clarence has shown him is that, in his own quiet way, he has been leaving his mark everywhere and upon everyone in his little town. He has lead the life he wanted, only he did not realize it at the time. And now, returned from the very brink, he sees that everything he once hated is in fact the very stuff of his joy, and as he runs through the town he wishes Merry Christmas to all the things he once regarded as stumbling blocks to his dreams, but now realizes as the stepping stones to his truly wonderful life.
George Bailey stood on the bridge a miserable man, seeing himself a failure. That was Christmas Eve. On the morning he awakes, a poor man with a poor job and children he struggles to support. But that is not what holds him back: it is what holds him up and strengthens him, and now he knows it. Those who do not see this do not see the movie.