Friday, December 19, 2008

It's (Not Such) A Wonderful Life

Not to get all Scrooge-like at the holidays, but am I the only one who finds "It's a Wonderful Life" to be depressing and very much of a downer?

Eureka! I have company with Wendell Jamieson at the New York Times, who sums up exactly why I turn the channel or run for another room when someone suggests another viewing of this "holiday classic."

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

Soon enough, though, the darkness sets in. George’s brother, Harry (Todd Karns), almost drowns in a childhood accident; Mr. Gower, a pharmacist, nearly poisons a sick child; and then George, a head taller than everyone else, becomes the pathetic older sibling creepily hanging around Harry’s high school graduation party. That night George humiliates his future wife, Mary (Donna Reed), by forcing her to hide behind a bush naked, and the evening ends with his father’s sudden death.

Disappointments pile up. George can’t go to college because of his obligation to run the Bailey Building and Loan, and instead sends Harry. But Harry returns a slick, self-obsessed jerk, cannily getting out of his responsibility to help with the family business, by marrying a woman whose dad gives him a job. George again treats Mary cruelly, this time by chewing her out and bringing her to tears before kissing her. It is hard to understand precisely what she sees in him.

George is further emasculated when his bad hearing keeps him out of World War II, and then it’s Christmas Eve 1945. These scenes — rather than the subsequent Bizarro-world alternate reality — have always been the film’s defining moments for me. All the decades of anger boil to the surface.
Exactly! I'm about the same age as Jamieson and felt the same way by the time I watched it in adolesence, struck by the depressing, dark undercurrents throughout the movie. Long before the "moment of redemption" on the bridge, I can remember thinking "it's amazing this guy doesn't go on a shooting spree."

And isn't the ultimate theme of "be thankful for what you have, it could be worse" just so much social control, when you think about it? Life sucks, and you never realized your dreams, but so what, you could be dead?

Jamieson throws in a bit of criminology too:

And what about that banking issue? When he returns to the “real” Bedford Falls, George is saved by his friends, who open their wallets to cover an $8,000 shortfall at his savings and loan brought about when the evil Mr. Potter snatched a deposit mislaid by George’s idiot uncle, Billy (Thomas Mitchell).

But isn’t George still liable for the missing funds, even if he has made restitution? I mean, if someone robs a bank, and then gives the money back, that person still robbed the bank, right?
No doubt George would have been doing time at Singh Singh, regardless of having paid off the debt. But my favorite part of Jamieson's piece is his discussion of Pottersville, the "alternate reality" to Bedford Falls which would have existed if Jimmy Stewart's George Baily had never been born.

Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It’s been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s scheming financier.

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Wonderful Life” manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly. On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.
Pottersville rocks! And vice is, after all, recession-proof.

Anyway, lest you think I'm just a Scrooge this time of year or don't like holiday movies, I'd take another viewing of "A Christmas Carol" or "Rudolph" or even the horrid "The Christmas Shoes" with Rob Lowe over another trip back to Bedford Falls and its depressing holiday lore.

1 comment:

Phil BC said...

Over the Christmas period I've seen five versions of The Christmas Carol on the TV. It's bloody everywhere and seems more ubiquitous this year. A cunning plan by our masters to get us to spend more?