I owe everything to George Bailey.
– the first line of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) by Frank Kapra
The last time I watched It’s a Wonderful Life it made me want to jump off a bridge.
We’d just about run out of ideas for illegal downloads that might be fun for the whole family. The gap between kid and adult fare has widened considerably in recent years, and most of the older titles have never taken up residence on enough hard drives for the shareware to grab hold of. Apparently It’s a Wonderful Life can muster enough mythic power to make the jump across the technological gap.
When you know a movie really well it starts to transcend linearity. When you know how the story is going to turn out and how it’s going to get from here to there, every scene becomes suffused with eschatological plenitude. This is how myths take shape: through endless repetition the beginning doesn’t just point to an inevitable end: the beginning includes the end.
A snowy village scene is accompanied by a triumphantly orchestrated rendering of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” “You Are Now in Bedford Falls” reads the road sign; then another sign takes its place: “Gower Drugs.” Then, in voice-over, the first line is spoken. We who have spent a lot of time in Bedford Falls recognize this voice right away, and we know just what the words mean.
What was it about for me this last time? George Bailey closes his eyes, places his hand ceremonially on some sort of machine: “I wish I had a million dollars,” he says, then ritually he pulls the lever. “Hot dog!” His favorite sounds? Train whistles, boat horns… signals that announce the beginning of a heroic voyage. Of course he never sees the world, never even attempts the defining deed, never makes his million dollars. Instead he… inherits the family business, sells low-interest mortgages for starter homes that’ll keep everybody else from moving away too, gets married and has three nice kids, remodels the big mansion at the edge of town.
The first line sets the movie’s distinctly economic tone. It’s all about money: money borrowed and lent, money invested and spent, money lost and found. Has George made a good investment of his own life? Clarence, George’s guardian angel, sets up an alternative-past scenario to show just how low Bedford Falls would have fallen if good old George Bailey hadn’t been there to write all those mortgages for the locals. Make no mistake: the kid brother who went to war did return a hero; the old buddy who started a business did make a fortune. But George is richer than them all, because no man is poor who has friends. Because it turns out that everybody in town loves George, and they all bail him out financially when that greedy bastard Mr. Potter, his lone competitor in the local marketplace and the only other really interesting character in the movie, rips off the bank deposit from kindhearted but addled Uncle Billy.
So I’m watching this movie again, knowing how everything fits together in the larger scheme, knowing that every outstanding account will eventually be balanced, that every loan will be repaid at a fair rate of interest, that even the hapless Clarence will finally earn his wings, and I feel the gloom descend. Where’s the story about the guy who has the nice successful business but who, when he hears the Glory Train blow its whistle, sells off the house, packs up the family and hops aboard, only to find that the train has been rerouted to some obscure destination that doesn’t even appear on the schedule? And what if the world wouldn’t have been a worse place – what if it wouldn’t have been any different at all? And what if the old friends don’t need to borrow anything from you because it turns out you’ve got nothing they want, and they won’t bail you out because it turns out they’ve got nothing you need? If somebody made that movie would anybody have the stomach to watch it – anybody besides me, that is?