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Blogvent Day 21 – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946,USA)


Director: Frank Capra                  Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell

Four days left ’til christmas which means one thing. It must be time to watch Frank Capra’s classic festive favourite, It’s A Wonderful Life, a film that never gets tired and never ceases to tug at the ol’ heartstrings*. Its a deeply complex tale about the perils of ambition, regret and desire. It has a razor sharp script, impressive performances and is beautifully put together. If you are unlucky enough to have never seen it, go out and buy it right now and consider yourself lucky you get to see it for the first time. Just get some tissues ‘n all because at times it can be a bit of a rough ride. I’m about to ruin the plot so if you haven’t seen it, read on at your own risk.

Centred around the life of George Bailey, the story unfolds as the cosmos answers the prayers of the people of Bedford Falls to help George out in his time of need. An angel is despatched to help him but before he can be of assistance the powers that be fill him in via an extended flashback of the life and times of George. Over the next ninety minutes we get to watch George have his ambitions thwarted at every turn, his dreams of college, travel, career and wealth slowly dismantled as he is compelled by his selflessnes and overbearing sense of duty to put everybody else ahead of his own hopes and dreams. He turns from a courageous and enthusiastic child into a tired and bitter adult, worn out by the constant strain of looking after other people’s interests. When his absent minded Uncle misplaces the funds of the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan, lining George up for a prison sentence and the ruination of everything he sacrificed himself for, George decides he and everybody else would be better off if he’d never been born. On a snowy christmas eve he decides to take his own life until Clarence (Angel, second class and Heaven’s envoy) intervenes and like the perverted lovechild of Dicken’s christmas ghosts, shows George what life would have been like had he never been born. When he sees how all the good things he has done have rippled out and touched the lives of other people that he realises the value of his life on earth and of the things that are truly precious to him.

The strongest message in this film is that with overreaching ambition comes regret and the two together are a recipe for disaster. George spends his life doing good, helping out the less fortunate than himself and on a couple of occasions saving lives with his quick wits and decisive nature. He keeps the Building & Loan on an even keel in times of trouble, despite the best efforts of his nemesis, the bitter and twisted local businessman Mr. Potter, to put it out of business. Potter is basically the Anti-George, viewing the poor and working class people of Bedford Falls as cattle to be exploited to fill his own coffers full of cash. In fact George was the only person (with the exception of his father before him) with the courage to stand up to the all powerful Potter. Bailey Senior sums up the old buzzard best. “Oh he’s a sick man. Frustrated. Sick in his mind, sick in his soul. If he has one”. He sits in his wheelchair as a warning to us all that the relentless pursuit of money ahead of people will destroy us from the inside out.

George spends so much time worrying about the things he hasn’t been able to achieve and why he too starts to become bitter and resentful. His regrets at having never achieved the things he thought he wanted from life obscure his sight of the things he has achieved. Helping the people of his town gain and keep a roof over their heads. Having a family he loves. Saving his little brother from drowning and the life of a little girl who would otherwise have been accidentally poisoned by a grief stricken druggist. Giving the people of Bedford Falls dignity and hope and a way out of the grip of the vile Mr Potter. Celebrate your achievements, however small, rather than waste energy and time worrying about what you might have done. This is the key to happiness.

As it turns out, in his hour of greatest need, the same people he helped time and time again come out to bat for him. After Potter essentially steals the $8000 deposit George’s Uncle loses and effectively sets him up for a jail sentence the townsfolk rally round him and chip in to make up the deficit. His friends and family all contribute to save the day, all repaying the debt of his previous kindnesses in a glorious show of solidarity. When people stand together they can achieve anything, especially defeating the devious machinations of dishonest sharks like Potter. When we put each other ahead of how much money we have, how many things we own, how many holidays we’ve had, we become so much greater.

Here’s to George Bailey, the richest man I know.

*A friend** of mine recently pointed out that looking at the film from a slightly different angle it’s the story of a banker who recklessly loses other people’s money before having to be bailed out by the public. Clearly this is a far less touching reading of the film but as cynical as it is, does kind of have a certain resonance. On a more serious note though the significance of this suspicion of capitalism, especially Christmas commercialism, is a very powerful and oft repeated theme in pretty much all of the Christmas films I’ve watched for this blog, even the more outlandish horror offerings.

**For more of my friend Feexby’s leftfield thinking, check out his blog.

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