Over the past couple of weeks, I've had several conversations about the movies people watch at this time of year. We talked about which movies people, often families or multi-family groups, choose, why these particular movies are appealing and what sorts of traditions accompany the screenings. It's an excellent conversation starter in groups of folks who may not know each other well.
Among the movies that came up most frequently were the quotable 1983 comedy "A Christmas Story," the 1966 animated version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the 1989 comedy "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," the 1964 stop-motion animated "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and the 2003 comedy "Elf." My own children love that last one. When Buddy the Elf, played by Will Ferrell, digs into a mountainous plate of spaghetti noodles loaded with various candies and doused with maple syrup, the kids, okay, and I, too, double over with laughter.
There's one more movie on this list, and I bet you can guess it.
That's right: Frank Capra's 1946 masterpiece, "It's a Wonderful Life," starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
In my own experience, and I don't think I'm alone on this, "It's a Wonderful Life" is a movie that I have mostly seen only in fragments, catching it already in progress on TV and/or having to break away from it to complete some holiday errands or to get some sleep. Some scenes I have seen dozens of times, while other scenes perhaps only once or twice.
So, influenced by these recent conversations I decided to reserve one night, after the children were in bed, to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" attentively and without pause--as movies were traditionally experienced--so I could consider what values, ideas and ideals this Christmas classic promotes. The movie is, in fact, quite sophisticated and a welcome story in the present moment of what living wonderful lives might be about when there are a lot of forces in the world that diminish and ridicule the very values that "It's a Wonderful Life" exalts.
At its heart, the movie is about the journey George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, takes to transcend the narcissistic individualism and pursuit of wealth that were dominant cultural pressures then as they continue to be now.
Early on in the story, we witness George and his father, Peter, discussing the future of the Bailey Building and Loan over a family dinner at home. George gets excited while listing off his desire for what he calls a big and important future, filled with college studies, international travel and then architecture and engineering. His gusto inadvertently dismisses the importance of his father's work at the bank in small-town Bedford Falls that loans money largely to the working class who are consistently rejected if they approach the bank run by the Scrooge of the story, Henry F. Potter. Peter accepts that George wants to experience a bigger world, but he does remind him that the Bailey Building and Loan is what gets people out of Potter's slum properties and into their own modest homes.
Very shortly after the dinner scene, Peter has a stroke and we observe George in a board meeting about the future of the Building and Loan. Mr. Potter attacks Peter and George for holding high ideals without common sense and thereby declaring the son as unfit as the father was to lead a financial institution. George sharply rebukes Potter by reminding him that the people he calls "the lazy rabble" are actually the people who do "most of the working and paying and living and dying" in Bedford Falls. Put simply, George embodies principles he inherited from his father. The Building and Loan is not, to his mind, an enterprise for generating capital and paying executives massive salaries. To the contrary, for the Baileys, this financial institution exists as a collective resource for all the poor working people of the community to support each other as they pursue modest dreams of raising families with basic needs fulfilled in neighborhoods of very small houses but very big networks of friends.
This revolutionary concept of the Building and Loan is underscored later in a dramatic scene when there’s a run on the banks in Bedford Falls and the Baileys very nearly go out of business. On the wall of the B & L offices is a portrait of Peter Bailey and under it, implying it's either a saying by him or one of his favorites, the words, "All you can take with you is that which you've given." This particular scene ends with George jovially celebrating the fact that they closed the day with two one-dollar bills. He puts them in a basket, dubs them Mama and Papa dollar and encourages them to hurry up and make a family. His capacity for jokes and joy in the face of near bankruptcy starkly contrasts Potter's reaction to the bank run by trying to lure all the Building and Loan customers away with an offer that would take a 50 percent profit from people’s assets.
And let's not forget that Clarence, the Angel Second Class who's trying to earn his wings in the movie, tells George with a hint of disdain for the object, that money isn't used in heaven.
Not only does "It's a Wonderful Life" present a positive imagination of American financial institutions as not-for-profit entities, but it emphasizes how George has to leave behind his individualistic narcissism to recognize what a wonderful life really is. George surrenders his dream of college to ensure the Building and Loan continues after his father's death; he surrenders the honeymoon with Mary when the run on the bank takes place just as they're about to leave town; he surrenders potential profits by approving loans to the working class and in particular to the Martini family who Mr. Potter refers to hatefully as "garlic eaters."
In the painful parts toward the end of the movie where George takes out his anxieties and frustrations on Mary and their children and then considers ending his own life, the movie makes it clear, largely through what Clarence the angel says and does, that this violence and loss is the result of individualism. It's when George thinks only of himself in isolation that he becomes detached, desperate and cruel to others. That message is underscored at the very end when atop the pile of money that all the working class folks of Bedford Falls have donated to save the Building and Loan is Clarence's copy of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Inside the cover, he inscribed for George, "No man is a failure who has friends." Then the bell ornament on the tree rings and we know Clarence has received his wings.
To conclude this blog entry, the values and ideals promoted by "It's a Wonderful Life" offer a counterforce to the often dominant forces in the world that encourage us to pursue wealth and our individual happiness and success first and foremost. To be sure, the movie has many of its own flaws and challenges of representation. Nevertheless, the call to love others, to see a wonderful life as one integrated with family and friends and strangers and to imagine alternative social structures that truly support a community: all these messages ring a bell.