I couldn’t have written a more truthful and beautiful piece on ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ if I had all December to do it. It’s one of my all time favorite films and I’d watch it any month of the year. Please read and enjoy the following write-up from filmsophy, and have a Merry Christmas.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE?
by Chad Perman
It’s easy to lose track of your life. All of us do it, in one way or another, locked up so tightly in our own heads - our own private little worlds - that we lose sight not only of The Big Picture, but of even our own smaller pictures: our families, our friends, the things we set in motion, the lives we impact and influence on a daily basis. Which is precisely why one should watch It’s a Wonderful Life at least one time each year. Not because it’s on TV all the time in December, not because your relatives are forcing you to, not even because it is (in my opinion) one of the best ten films ever made. No, watch it because of the way you feel once it’s over, the way it reminds you that you matter, the way you interact just a bit differently with people (or at least, try to) for a few days after seeing it. Above all, watch it to remember your ripple.
Let me explain.
Dr. Irvin Yalom, a brilliant psychotherapist and writer, as well as one of my own personal heroes, is, sadly nearing the end of his long and distinguished career. As such, he’s turned his professional focus over the past few years towards death - the grappling we all must do over its inevitable finality, and the long shadows it casts over every single aspect of our lives. How are we, the only creatures on this earth aware of our own fragile mortality and the awful realization of an expiration date (no matter how well we live, how wonderfully we behave, or how healthy we are), how are we supposed to carry on with all this awful knowledge? What is the point, ultimately, of anything that we do? How do we, especially those of us not comforted by the tonic of religion or soothed by the promise of a better world awaiting us after this one, confront our own mortality without being utterly crippled or paralyzed by it?
Yalom concludes, finally, that one way we endure is through our ‘ripples’, the “the fact that each of us creates - often without our conscious intent or knowledge - concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations…the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level. The idea that we can leave something of ourselves, even beyond our knowing, offers a potent answer to those who claim that meaninglessness inevitably flows from one’s finiteness and transiency”.
Of course, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), the Everyman Hero of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, doesn’t exactly come to this idea of rippling on his own. In fact, it’s basically forced upon him by an angel-in-training after a botched suicide attempt on Christmas Eve. Clarence, the angel attempting to earn his wings, saves George by rescuing him from the waters he’s jumped into, and then offers him an ingenious gift (and narrative device!) that a good many of us might indeed feel changed by - the ability to actually see what what the world would be like if we had never been born. George, in effect, becomes aware of the ripples he’s made by being shown their absence: the war hero brother who never makes it to war (and saves other soldiers lives) because George wasn’t around to save him from drowning in a frozen lake as a boy; the quiet and lonely sadness of his wife Mary’s (Donna Reed) life without him in it; the scores of people who were screwed over by the town’s resident Scrooge, Mr. Potter, because George was never there to stand up to Potter, stand up for the people, and provide a different, better way of life for the citizens of Bedford Falls through his inherited work at the Savings and Loan.
Now, sure, your own life might not contain such large ripples - at least not yet! - but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain any. Think of the lives you’ve touched. Think of all the lives you still have left to touch. Think about your ripples.
There’s another way to read It’s a Wonderful Life, a much more cynical one to be sure, but also one that I suspect goes a long way toward explaining its massive appeal over the years.
Very few among us can relate to someone who is actually living out their dreams, conquering the world in exactly the ways in which they had hoped to as an idealistic young person. But who among us can’t relate to its opposite, to thwarted dreams and lives of quiet desperation? To making small concessions that eventually turned into a life you’d never meant to have, an adventurous Man of the World becoming, instead, a Family Man stuck back in his old hometown?
This is George Bailey’s story for most of the film, the discouraging plot of It’s a Wonderful Life for well over half of its running time. George dreams of a life perpetually out of reach, always right around a corner that never comes. He makes all the responsible choices, the safe ones, the necessary ones, and in exchange gives up nearly all of his youthful ambitions. It’s heartbreaking. And worse, it happens to almost every single one of us.
But It’s a Wonderful Life assures us that it’s all going to be okay. It assuages that nagging voice in the back of our heads that tells us we were meant for something greater, soothes that itching ambition and resulting disappointment at a life not fully lived. Looking at it this way, it’s not hard to see why so many people love and embrace this film. Who doesn’t want to feel better about all the things they never did? Who doesn’t want to think that all the compromises they’ve made along the way will wind up bringing them just as much happiness as the dreams they traded them in for? Thus, we flock to It’s a Wonderful Life because it’s our therapy, our culturally endorsed, holiday-approved balm for all the miseries and disappointments that pile up around us with each passing year.
So I guess the question becomes, then, why am I so personally drawn to the film? Why do I insist on watching it every single year? Is it the theme of rippling (I hope) or merely the band-aid the film applies to my own regrets (I fear)? Can it somehow be both?
Regardless - and make no mistake about it - It’s a Wonderful Life is a tremendously dark film, 15/16ths a tragedy. Sure, there’s a jubilant celebration at film’s end (a happy ending which takes up, literally, less than five minutes of the entire film’s running time), the telegram, Zuzu’s Petals, Auld Lang Syne, and a Happy Ending fade out. But in comparison to all the darkness that’s come before it - compromise, defeat, depression, a nearly successful suicide attempt by the film’s main character (!!) - there’s nowhere near enough love and joy to balance it all out.
It always amazes me the ways in which people misunderstand It’s a Wonderful Life, thinking of it as a something almost wholly other than what it really is; that it’s a holiday staple, revered by nearly everyone (though, interestingly, not very successful when first released in 1946), is even more puzzling. There is no Santa Claus here, no Winter Wonderland, no whimsy, and precious little ‘holiday spirit’ to the film. That it is considered a Christmas film at all has mostly to do with the timing of George Bailey’s suicide attempt: this beaten down and worn out businessman, husband, and father jumps off a bridge on Christmas Eve.
Merry Christmas, eh?
That George finally decides life is worth the living - after Clarence’s inspired this-is-your-life-without-you tour - and rushes home to hug his wife and kids and celebrate the holiday with his friends and family is certainly a nice touch, but hardly one that would justify its status as an Official Christmas Movie.
Still, in the end, we gather around our televisions every December, we hold our loved ones close, we think about all the food we just ate, and we let George Bailey’s triumphs and failures become our own. And maybe, just maybe, we realize how lucky we all are. Because to live, for even a single day, is a miracle.
Chad Perman is a writer and the editor-in-chief of Filmosophy. He lives in Seattle.