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The Dark Territory of It's a Wonderful Life

  • Dec 27, 2013
Rating:
-3
I looked up the writers of the classic Frank Capra flick It's a Wonderful Life. Capra's name was among them, and when I did some further-depth research about his own life, I was a little surprised to learn that he suffered occasional bouts of depression during an earlier downswing in his younger years. It seemed odd to me because It's a Wonderful Life doesn't come off as anything that could ever have been written by anyone who's suffered from depression. It comes off like more the fantasy of a screenwriter trying to put his arm around the backs of depression sufferers everywhere and say "There, there, it'll all get better."

There was a brief window of my life when I made a tradition, like everyone else, of watching It's a Wonderful Life during the holiday season. I was just a few years into it, though, when I noticed that there was something about it which really wasn't sitting right with me. I had hit a low point in my life at the time and was contemplating suicide harder than I ever had - it's fairly safe to say only my religious beliefs at the time kept me from going through with it. That, of course, puts me in a situation similar to that of George Bailey, James Stewart's main character. The movies takes us through George's life story, bringing us to the moment the movie begins, when God - yes, THAT God - is commanding an angel named Clarence to talk George out of his suicidal depression. Clarence visits George, shows him what everything would be like of he never existed, and George is magically happy again.

If only real depression were that simple. In real life, there's no Clarence, and George offs himself. The problem with the movie's premise is that George is set up and defined as a man of very significant impact. It's true that George has thwarted dreams that are similar to my own in a couple of ways, but it's difficult to get me to believe George really had it that bad. His dream of traveling the world, after all, is something he surrenders willingly, even if he does do it quite often. George first takes over a business that was threatening to stop writing loans out for the poor because the board heads would only continue doing that if George was running it. I don't have any problems with this; but George gives his college cash stash to his brother Harry, and that's where the problem begins. Harry takes George's cue and then seemingly coasts through his life on a series of implausible breaks. Harry marries into a rich family and becomes a war hero.

George, meanwhile, runs his company and keeps roadblocking his own path. His gestures are admittedly noble: At one point, he gives his honeymoon money to depositors to satisfy their immediate needs. At another, he turns down the job of his dreams when it's offered because his nemesis, Potter, is planning to take over his city.

Throughout all this, by the way, George is able to find the time and means to marry his longtime love and sire four kids. He buys a home, too. During the never-born sequence, George's wife, Mary, ends up being a shy, perpetually single librarian, as if she could never have found a man who wasn't George Bailey and a fulfilling career. (Well, okay, this movie is from 1946, so the career isn't very likely.)

A supremely ironic point that occurs to me right now is that so far, the movie and I are in agreement over the main theme: George is leading a life most people would consider very significant and fulfilling. But that's where our similarities end. George is very well known and beloved throughout his community because of the willing selflessness he shows, constantly sacrificing pursuit of his dreams in order to better the lives of those around him. Everything he did, except getting rejected by the military, was something he gave up by personal choice. He has good friends and a devoted wife and a good home in a nice community.

This is basically magical Hollywood depression. It's sanitized nicely for people who believe a few inspiring words are more than enough to snap anyone out of a funk and return them to their jolly old selves. Just like real depression and real suicidal contemplation, I swear, knowing from experience. It's basically the same, except take away George's communal niceties, flowing opportunities, family, and largely decent job. Strip him of all the status, prestige, and trust he earned from the people around him, and put him in a much more menial situation in which the livlihoods of a lot fewer people depend on his fortunes and you'll start to get the idea.

The one inspirational thing that I did take away from It's a Wonderful Life is actually the life story of Frank Capra himself. He got himself stuck in a life rut very similar to my own, and our ages during this rough patch weren't that far apart. Capra was going through his during much worse circumstances. Yet, he still found a way to overcome his obstacles and eventually become one of the most important directors in the history of American film.

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More It's a Wonderful Life (1947 mo... reviews
Quick Tip by . July 27, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Its truley a classic. It is not just a great Christmas movie, but an overall great film. Who doesnt love James Stewart.
Quick Tip by . July 25, 2010
You always get a warm-hearted feeling when watching this film.
Quick Tip by . May 27, 2010
A heart-warming story!! Makes you want to believe in miracles.
Quick Tip by . May 04, 2010
Great movie, my second favorit.
review by . March 23, 2009
This rates up with my top 5 favorite movies of all time. I grew up on the Donna Reed show and remember that this was the movie I always saw her in and she was a lot more beautiful then. James Stewart is great as George Baily, the guy who wanted to help everybody and sacrificed his own financial success.     The idea that one doesn't realize one's worth until you are removed from the equation has been copied hundreds of times since but never as well as this movie.     Clarence …
review by . December 17, 2008
Such a classic movie. No doubt you've either seen it a million times or heard one of the many infamous quotes.     I enjoy sitting down to properly watch this movie almost as much as I enjoy catching glimpses of it playing on random store-front tv's because it always evokes that warm fuzzy feeling of goodness. There's nothing nicer than knowing a man who gives up everything in his life for others, eventually gets and understands that karma (of course they don't call it that in …
review by . December 17, 2005
I have seen hundreds of movies that move me, "It's a Wonderful Life" have been one of my favorite Christmas story as long as I can remember. Many people find it corny and old fashioned, I find it uplifting and as true in content today as the day it was made. No one could have portrayed the character of George Bailey like the unforgettable Jimmy Stewart....and Donna Reed and the entire cast.......Wow!!   I think Frank Capra must have had a sixth sense when it came to knowing who would cast …
review by . January 27, 2005
posted in Movie Hype
This rates up with my top 5 favorite movies of all time. I grew up on the Donna Reed show and remember that this was the movie I always saw her in and she was a lot more beautiful then. James Stewart is great as George Baily, the guy who wanted to help everybody and sacrificed his own financial success.    The idea that one doesn't realize one's worth until you are removed from the equation has been copied hundreds of times since but never as well as this movie.    Clarence …
review by . September 15, 2004
posted in Movie Hype
I watch this movie every year at Christmas and I think it is fabulous. The movie is based largely on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, except in this case instead of a scrooge we have George Bailey. George is a hardworking, decent, and kind man who runs a small bank in town. Unfortunately for him, the bad guy in the movie, Mr. Potter also runs a bank and wants a monopoly in the town. When one of George's employees loses a large sum of money Potter jumps in and tries to ruin George. Distraught …
review by . July 13, 2003
It was produced and directed by Frank Capra who collaborated with Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Jo Swerling on the screenplay. Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture) it won none. Over the years, however, it developed a loyal following, largely comprised of those who appreciate Capra's films. Only in recent years has it received the recognition and praise it deserves. How to describe this film? It focuses on a thoroughly decent man named George Bailey (James Stewart) who, …
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Now perhaps the most beloved American film, It's a Wonderful Life was largely forgotten for years, due to a copyright quirk. Only in the late 1970s did it find its audience through repeated TV showings. Frank Capra's masterwork deserves its status as a feel-good communal event, but it is also one of the most fascinating films in the American cinema, a multilayered work of Dickensian density. George Bailey (played superbly by James Stewart) grows up in the small town of Bedford Falls, dreaming dreams of adventure and travel, but circumstances conspire to keep him enslaved to his home turf. Frustrated by his life, and haunted by an impending scandal, George prepares to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. A heavenly messenger (Henry Travers) arrives to show him a vision: what the world would have been like if George had never been born. The sequence is a vivid depiction of the American Dream gone bad, and probably the wildest thing Capra ever shot (the director's optimistic vision may have darkened during his experiences making military films in World War II). Capra's triumph is to acknowledge the difficulties and disappointments of life, while affirming--in the teary-eyed final reel--his cherished values of friendship and individual achievement.It's a Wonderful Lifewas not a big hit on its initial release, and it won no Oscars (Capra and Stewart were nominated); but it continues to weave a special magic.--Robert Horton
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