Crushing a Classic
I know it’s practically sacrilege to admit such a thing, but I’m not a big fan of It’s a Wonderful Life.
It isn’t a terrible film by any means, and it’s easy to see why people revere it. An ordinary man sees the life of adventure and travel he hoped for constantly thwarted but eventually learns to love the pleasant life he does have. Cherish what you have, is the movie’s message. Count your blessings. Who could argue with those aphorisms?
And that, maybe, is my problem with It’s a Wonderful Life: it’s too easy. Its two main characters — George Bailey (James Stewart: The Greatest Show on Earth) and Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore: You Can’t Take It with You) — are stereotypes, respectively, of the poor, eternally put-upon ordinary guy and the mean-spirited, rich old bastard. The conflicts the film sets up couldn’t be more black-and-white — and I’m not talking about the film stock.
George Bailey may think the deck is heavily stacked against him his entire life, but the audience can see that it isn’t. Sure, everything that can possibly go wrong for poor George does — he’s forced to skip his long-planned summer in Europe, ends up passing up his dreamed-of college career, doesn’t get to have an exciting time during WWII like the other men in his town do (and how likely is that?), and even has to cancel his honeymoon. But he does it all in the cause of the eternal battle his family — which runs the local building and loan society, serving the working-class people of Bedford Falls — has waged against Potter’s bank. Potter, the “richest and meanest man in the county,” is a direct descendant of Ebenezer Scrooge, cutting po’ workin’ folk no slack and constantly on the lookout for a way to buy just about the last thing in Bedford Falls he doesn’t own: Bailey Building & Loan.
George’s suicide attempt, of course, gets him the attention of an angel looking to earn his wings, who shows George what an awful place Bedford Falls would have been if George had never been born. George has his famous change of heart after seeing what a wonderful life he has led… but something about this has always bothered me, too, and I’ve just realized what it is: George deferred and eventually lost all his dreams in order to help other people fulfill their dreams. A noble cause, surely, and helping others is certainly something we should all be doing… to an extent. But who’s gonna help poor George realize his dreams?
It bothers me, too, that Potter — whose sneaky act is finally what drives George to suicide — gets no comeuppance and suffers no consequences as a result of his contemptible act. Sure, we’re supposed to see Potter as a loser because he has no friends — unlike George, beloved by the entire town — but Potter seems quite happy with himself.
Remember that “alternate ending” of It’s a Wonderful Life that Saturday Night Live came up with years ago? George never finds out what happened to that $8,000 that nearly ruined him, and the film ends on a happy note when the townspeople pitch in to raise the money. SNL‘s ending was a little darker: Someone discovers that Potter has George’s money, and so we’re treated to the spectacle of Dana Carvey as Jimmy Stewart leading a lynch mob: “Well, let’s get ’im!” Carvey’s George cries. That’s more the ending I’d like to see.
AFI 100: #20
unforgettable movie moment:
What else? The final scene of the film, in which George, despondent and angry, finds his faith in the world renewed by a living room full of friends, returning all the favors he has done them with cash donations.
previous AFI 100 film:
19: On the Waterfront
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