At this time of year, I have one immutable tradition. Between divorced parents, step-families and in-laws, I visit several different homes who all celebrate the holidays in various ways, and I’m plenty flexible with that sort of thing. I’ll do whatever, eat whatever, go wherever. But as incontrovertible as time and more reliable than the seasons, I can promise you that I will watch It’s A Wonderful Life with my step-dad Lynn at some point during the holidays. This is a custom more crucial to me than the tree, the gifts, the dinner, the music. We will sit side by side on the sofa and quote our favorite lines together, echoing the same good-natured debates we’ve had every year since I was in fifth grade (Lynn: “That George Bailey sure is a good man.” Me: “Well, Mary Bailey is quite a woman, too, you know.”), and at the end I will cry, cry when Harry Bailey says the words, “A toast to my big brother George, the richest man in town.” I always cry. I just teared up typing those words.
There isn’t a moment I would change of It’s A Wonderful Life. I feel utterly unequal to the task of viewing it in a critical light. I don’t mean in a disapproving light—obviously, I can’t do that—but in the way I was taught to view films, equipped with the tools of critical analysis and unbiased appraisal. There is no other film to which I am so unabashedly partial. Ask me about any of my other favorite films, and I will concede that there are minute changes that could be made to improve them to the point of perfection. With It's A Wonderful Life, I just do not have it in me. Call it saccharine and I’ll call it bittersweet. Call it overlong and I’ll call it thorough. Call it manipulative and I will have nothing left to say to you.
What is it about the film that speaks to me in such a fierce way? Two tremendous performances from Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are certainly part of it. Stewart plays George as passionate, ironic, eventually resigned, always flawed and yet ultimately stalwart. He is not a perfect man -- he has a hot temper and he spends much of the film searching for something elusive rather than appreciating his many blessings -- but he sacrifices his own dreams again and again in order to support the community and the people he loves. And yet when happiness sneaks up on George, it takes a near tragedy for him to recognize it. Reed is his steadfast admirer, loving him patiently and selflessly for as long as it takes for him to realize that she is the kindest and most charming woman alive. When they are kids at the pharmacy soda counter, and Mary leans over and whispers in George’s bum ear, I always whisper along with her: “George Bailey, I’ll love you ‘til the day I die.” Theirs is a love story that touches me in a way I cannot and would not shake. It’s both beautifully pure and smoking, scorching hot. Watch the scene where they share a telephone in Mary’s foyer and try and tell me that it’s not the most romantic, passionate exchange you’ve ever seen.
But It's A Wonderful Life is more than a love story. It offers a message that I genuinely believe -- that fate often knows better than we do what our dreams should be. We can fight and fight toward a goal we've told ourselves since we were kids that we must achieve, but often the life that we never planned for ourselves is the life that will fulfill us in a way no grand accomplishment could. I believe that family and friends and selflessly doing what we believe is right even when it's inconvenient will satisfy us when financial and professional success will not. I know that makes me a cornball, but only a cornball could love It's A Wonderful Life as wholly and happily as I do.
There's more to the film -- it gives an over-simplified but comfy comparison of "good" capitalism (Bailey Bros. Building and Loan) and "bad" capitalism (Mr. Potter of Potter Everything, Incorporated), and it teaches us that every life, no matter how seemingly insignificant, touches others immeasurably. But what It's A Wonderful Life most offers me is harder to define: joy. With every annual viewing, I feel an effortless, uncomplicated joy from the moment we see Clarence and Joseph twinkling in the sky to the moment that George tells Zuzu, "That's right. That's right!" The film engages me on a level beyond intellectual that is rather instinctual, and that is something that I will gladly accept without further examination. I believe that the capacity to love a film with pure, thoughtless delight is a gift that we should all receive without question.
We're all generally savvy film viewers around here, so I'm curious: what, if any, films reach you guys in the same unhesitant, uncritical and whole-hearted way?
Oh and one more thing: merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan.