One of my favourite lines from It's A Wonderful Life occurs quite early in the movie. Clarence has been summoned by Joseph and Sir to help George Bailey. "Oh no," says Clarence. "Is he sick?" "Worse," says the calm and patient Sir. "He's discouraged." The movie begins by recognizing that, worse than any disease of the flesh, is the loss of hope.
I saw It's a Wonderful Life on television the other night, meaning we are now into It's a Wonderful Month. I don't mind so much, as it is one of my favourite movies. It is about hope, and friendship, and love, and the transforming powers of all these. So naturally, at this time of the year people come out to attack it.
There are among us certain people who cannot stand the idea that goodness exists, which, if left to themselves, would mean little. But they also cannot stand that anyone else believe that goodness exists. Not content with being not contented on their own, they seek to draw others into their discontent. They are Evangelists of the Bad News. They treat life as only the bad is real, and good an illusion for children, as if black were the only colour, and all other colours visible to the eye are illusory.
With that in mind, I repost this piece from a few years back, written in response to one attack on the movie by someone who missed what I like to call The Entire Point.
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 more firmly 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 suggest that a municipal economy would be better off based on Prostitution, speakeasies, strip clubs, gambling, along with police who fire indiscriminately into large crowds is more an indictment of themself than it is of this movie.
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.”
This has stepped outside of the realm of interpretation, and moved into imposition. It is a cynicism imposed upon the film, not inherent in it. As I told my students, so I would say to this writer: this is not an interpretation the movie can hold. The writer is a materialist evaluating the movie in the light of materialism. He is correct that the George of Chrismtas Day is materially no different than the George of Christmas Eve. But he is incorrect to materially evaluate a movie which rejects materialism utterly. By doing so he ignores the one simple fact which 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. If this man's interpretation were to be pushed to its logical conclusion, the greedy, lying, scheming and rich Potter, whom we last see alone but for his servant on Christmas Eve is the hero of the movie, and George Bailey, surrounded by his family and friends, singing, cheerful and happy, proclaimed by his successful, war hero brother to be 'the richest man in town', is the movie's chump.
It is not so. 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.