A Less-Than-Wonderful Life For The Next Four Years

The last half-hour of Frank Capra‘s It’s A Wonderful Life (’46) always gets me deep down. I don’t really like the film (or any Capra creation for that matter) but my throat always tightens when Jimmy Stewart‘s distraught George Bailey begs Clarence the Angel for another chance — “Please, please…I want to live again.”

Movies like It’s A Wonderful Life are good for the heart and soul, no question. It’s a sappy film on one level but a very dark one besides, and I admire the ballsiness that it took to send nice-guy Stewart to a snow-covered bridge in order to commit suicide, and then whip it all around so he ends up in a joyful embrace with his family and friends. (Kudos to screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, whose work Capra tweaked to some extent.)

That said, there’s a passage in David G. Allan’s CNN.com piece about this much-loved classic that I feel like quibbling with.

“The big life lesson from this eminent Christmas perennial comes late in the film,” Allan writes, “and delivered straight from heaven. ‘Each man’s life touches so many other lives,’ explains Clarence. ‘When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?‘”

Well, in the scheme of It’s A Wonderful Life, yeah, but in actuality, not really. Or not as much as Capra or Stewart would have us believe.

For no matter how selfless or charitable or open-hearted a person may be, regardless of how many good or noble acts he/she may be responsible for, the churn and swirl of life will always win out. The constant cycle of birth and death and come-what-may happenstance is persistent, inexorable and unstoppable, and whatever lies in store that is good or bad, it will eventually happen on its own steam.

Essentially good, fair-minded, hard-working people will always be balms for their communities and families and whatnot and thank God for that, but no single life has ever been as central and influential as George Bailey’s. One way or another, the shit that may happen or not happen will eventually happen or not happen. Spiritual water always finds its own level. Fates are fulfilled, and chapters need to conclude in order for succeeding chapters to begin.

There is so much more to the cosmic scheme than was ever dreamt or imagined by the philosophy of Frank Capra, it’s not even funny.

The only exception to this rule, I feel, is in the negative, such as “what if Adolf Hitler had been hit by a Munich streetcar in the 1920s? Would another charismatic fascist fiend have eventually taken his place and led Germany to doom in the early to mid ’40s?”

Or “what if, God forbid, the triumvirate of Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Paul Ryan were to somehow meet with an unfortunate fate?” Would the U.S. still be plunged into all-but-certain instability and God-knows-what-threatening-scenarios between 1.20.17 and 1.20.21? Or is this shared fate locked in no matter what? Is the Trump horror something that needs to happen, regardless of the misery and rage that is likely to be spread around in healthy doses?

I wonder what Clarence would say about all this. Are you listening, Clarence? Is it somehow better or, you know, more cosmically benevolent or even-handed to just let Mr. Potter turn Bedford Falls into Pottersville and let our mass fate fulfill itself? Help me, Clarence…I need to know. I think we all do.

There’s one passage in Allan’s article that I agree with 100%, and which actually thrilled me when I read it. It’s a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke — “Hier zu sein ist so veil” or “to be here is immense.”

  • Michael Gebert

    You know who was almost hit and killed by a car in the early 30s? Winston Churchill.

    You know what else happened in traffic in the early 30s? It occurred to Leo Szilard as he was crossing a street that if you started bouncing electrons off atoms, they might make a chain reaction that would get bigger and bigger.

    Traffic, the real driver of destiny behind us all.

  • robert jenks

    Jeff, please get laid. Or find some more comfortable shoes. Merry Christmas.

    • Robert, please fuck off. It’s Christmas and therefore cool to riff about a classic Christmas film, and the notions about individual consequence and mass fate that IAWL brings up have applications now and forever.

      • robert jenks

        No offense intended. It’s merely frustration that you introduce a profoundly interesting topic triggered by a classic film and then ruin it with a knee-jerk “what if Trump et al get into a plane crash?” scenario.

        • Are you telling me that you don’t see similarities between Donald Trump and Mr. Potter? Good God, man!

          • Michael Gebert

            The big difference I see is that Potter never developed that Bedford Falls property. I see a big hotel in Pottersville, really classy.

  • Dr. New Jersey

    I hadn’t known until this year that Dorothy Parker also doctored the script. I’m convinced she’s the one who wrote, “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?”

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    • Or “Youth is wasted on the wrong people.”

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  • lazarus

    The line that gets me every time isn’t Bailey’s cry of despair, but when his brother raises his glass in toast after making a surprise, life-saving appearance at the end: “To my brother George Bailey, the richest man in town.”

    • That’s a Hallmark greeting card cliche. And who’s to say George Bailey is “the richest man in town”? No one else in Bedford Falls is “rich” in terms of love and respect and emotional ties to his friends & neighbors? No one else in that town can measure up to the great & beloved George Bailey in terms of civic esteem and familial affection? It’s a stupid thing to say.

    • I always get choked up when Sam Wainwright’s cable arrives, and everyone realizes they could have kept their money.

  • otto

    This one by Schopenhauer equals that by Rilke.

    “…a man never is happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something which he thinks will make him so; he seldom attains his goal, and when he does, it is only to be disappointed; he is mostly shipwrecked in the end, and comes into harbor with mast and rigging gone. And then, it is all one whether he has been happy or miserable; for his life was never anything more than a present moment always vanishing; and now it is over.”

    • That’s pretty good, Schopenhauer!

      • Michael Gebert

        Or as Topsy-Turvy put it on opening night:

        D’Oyly Carte: Ready?

        Gilbert: For what, the gibbet?

        And then you start all over again.

        • What?

          • Michael Gebert

            Opening night of The Mikado. W.S. Gilbert, who’s held it all together through the neuroses of everyone else, is at his moment of triumph. And he approaches it with all the joy of a man about to be hanged.

            And then the show closes, and you start all over again on another one. Can’t get enough of it.

        • Or as Sisyphus put it, “Oh my fucking back.”

    • And those are the success stories.

  • gatsby1040

    It’s a Wonderful Life is a GREAT movie. It’s very, very dark, and really pretty strange, especially given it’s cultural standing. It’s inciting incident is financial ruin and suicide, and it’s theme is that family and community can be a stifling hell, and the American dream is an inch way from being a nightmare.

  • Scott Thomas

    Love it – watch it every Xmas eve just before bed. I always wonder if people at that time ever approached the weird zaniness of some of the townsfolk – yelling bad jokes out windows, suddenly dancing in line as they move through the office etc. But it has grown in my mind that it still is a very cruel film also. Here is a guy who works hard and lives right and all he wants to do is travel (through work) -and see if he can educate himself and make something of himself. But the people and “spirit” of his hometown f@ck him over at every step. The brother gets married and comes home to spring the news just as George is about to go away – that is a dick move. The wife wishes to keep him in town after he tells her his big dream is to see the world – total dick move. But I still love it when people come to his aide. To be fair, Pottersville didn’t look half bad and was clearly making a tidy profit. True story – that actor was really drunk and really made that kids ear bleed. That’s magic brainless!!!