It's a Wonderful Life
Reviewed by Tom Panarese
Rating: 10 Beans
once read a review of “It’s A Wonderful Life” wherein the writer claimed anyone who hates this movie has no heart and no soul. Well, I abhor this movie, so I must be in league with Satan himself (although I was just in the men’s room looking at my head and didn’t see any sixes).
In case you don’t know what happens in this movie, Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a pretty down-on-his-luck guy who has never gotten what he really deserves in life because he’s been forced to make many, many sacrifices over the years. He’s deaf in one ear because he saved his brother Harry (Todd Karns) from drowning at the age of 8; consequently, Harry went off to college and became a war hero while George stayed home to run the Building and Loan he inherited from his father.
All this, of course, is to prepare us for a fateful night in George’s life. On Christmas Eve in 1945, after a mistake by his business partner Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) results in a misplaced $8,000, George is on the verge of ruin. As a result, the Ebenezer Scrooge-esque Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is on the verge of realizing a lifelong dream—owning the Building and Loan, closing it down, and essentially owning all of Bedford Falls.
Depressed, George attempts suicide, only to be rescued by Clarence (Henry Travers), his guardian angel who is also trying to earn his wings. He shows George what his life would be like if he never existed, and … (like you need a spoiler space) George decides that yes, he’s led a wonderful life after all.
I’ve struggled for years trying to like this film, but every time I’ve seen it, I come away feeling almost dirty, which I gather isn’t the reaction one should be having to such a beloved classic. At first, I figured it was because the movie is too saccharine for me. And it is. Capra’s sentimental tale has all the subtlety of getting hit by a bus. However, beneath the movie’s unbridled sincerity, there is an ironic hidden agenda.
It’s no secret that one of Frank Capra directed the “Why We Fight” series of films for the War Department in the 1940s (he would also direct a Cold War film called “The Red Menace”), and while our country doesn’t produce “propaganda,” his overall body of work had an overtly patriotic tinge to it. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is no exception. Capra extols the virtues of the everyday American, who throughout our country’s history has had to pull himself up by his bootstraps and succeed against all odds. It is, after all, the American dream, and this movie is patriotic in that respect—the show of goodwill at the end could only happen in this proud land of ours.
I’ve always thought, in some way, the film fails because Capra was inadvertently promoting a Marxist agenda. George (the proletariat) struggles against Mr. Potter (the capitalist bourgeoisie). The entire town eventually unites to help George in his cause, and at he end, everyone’s happy. Add to that George’s Clarence-provided vision in which his beloved town of Bedford Falls has been renamed Pottersville and is the epitome of capitalist excess we often see in the McCulture of today. In that world, where George doesn’t exist, it’s every man for himself, instead of everyone working together for a “greater good.”
The only place this argument really falls apart (with the exception of my watered down interpretation of Marx’s theories) is in the last moments of the movie. You see, years ago, George’s friend Sam (Frank Albertson) went into the plastics business and the wartime economy has made him rich. Sam forwards the money George needs to save Bedford Falls. Now you may be saying “So what? The theory still holds a little water; after all, they are still fighting the evil capitalists and Sam has gotten his money from serving the state …”
True, but I just want to say one word to you … just one word.
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