#186. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It came up in some earlier essay but seeing Jimmy Stewart act his heart out here, amplifying his already-considerable charm from Destry Rides Again and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, reminds me of this fucking infuriating exchange I had a few months back (maybe a year) with a guy who worked as a sort of adviser on my college newspaper staff and who fancied his praise such a seasoned and glorious thing that he seldom gave it, and instead talked shit about almost everything except a few select musicians and Anthony Burgess, and the guy continues to work on a blog and showcase, with near-constant posting, a rounded and voluminous intake of American culture: arts, politics, TV, gossip. Ahdunno how he finds the time. It’s impressive.

What’s not impressive is his tendency to be a pretentious dickbag. It’s the same shit he’d pull when I was in college. I asked him earlier this year which actor’s talent, Marlene Dietrich’s or Greta Garbo’s, has enjoyed the better favor with critics today.

His immediate response: “Why are you pitting women against each other?”

This is on a public Facebook post, of course; his stage. And I know he doesn’t give a fuck about this question, doesn’t take offense to it, probably doesn’t even have an answer. This is just what he always does: establish a bullshit moral high ground in the conversation, usually before it’s even started, so that you, a naive and hateful troglodyte, will proceed through the conversation on egg shells, deferential and apologetic and meek, less willing to question him — which as an adult talking to an adult is obnoxious and tiresome, but it’s also common enough to spark no special kind of anger.

What’s grating about it is remembering how he’d do this to students and to the teenagers who worked beneath him, so to speak, making them feel stupid for sport.

Which is maybe a good thing in that, yeah, he broke down some of my pretension and made me realize I wasn’t just writing to impress my peers, that adults were looking and maybe harboring judgments that they weren’t willing to articulate because they were concerned for my self-esteem, or they didn’t care enough, or cuz they figured I was just a kid and I’d grow out of it. Can’t say I’m not glad that he had that effect on me. It was helpful.

But he didn’t have to be such a douche about it.

Anyway. Feels wrong to open up a discussion of such a warm and life-affirming movie by settling a score, but the whole episode comes to mind because, after I asked him that question and he started grilling me about being a misogynist, I mentioned that I’d just read the transcription of a conversation where Orson Welles was discussing, with a friend, the relationship between Garbo and Dietrich. This teacher guy went on to dismiss Welles on the grounds that he was an inveterate liar (true enough) and that Welles had such a warped view of the world as to suggest that Jimmy Stewart was a bad actor, “which,” says the teacher, “lol.”

So now whenever I see Jimmy Stewart outdo himself I get to thinking about that conversation and it gets me flustered.

Anyway. I’ve been hearing about this movie my whole life but not only have I never seen it, I don’t think I’ve watched a single scene of it; still, I knew that it was beloved and famous and that it’s got an uplifting ending — I figured, though, that it wouldn’t live up to its reputation. But it does. It glows. It’s amazing. Just like Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind and Casablanca and Citizen Kane, it’s a classic that reveals its power immediately. In the first act we get a speedy account of our hero’s adolescence. He saves his brother from drowning, stops a pharmacist from poisoning somebody, falls in love with the woman who becomes his wife. This is all being overseen by a pair of narrators, angels, represented as flashing specs of light in the sky.

it's a wonderful life

The hero, named George Bailey, works at a bank and helps all the people in the small town by according them small bits of money after the stock market crash so that nobody goes totally broke. I didn’t quite understand all of the banking stuff that moves the plot along. There’s some devious, old, bald white guy who’s some kind of mogul, wearing expensive clothes and smoking fancy cigars while the rest of the country is floundering, and he’s trying to…buy George’s bank? I’m not sure. Something to do with the real estate of an old cemetery in town. It’s devious, is all I know, and I’m clued into that mostly by the fact that he’s a bald old white guy with a cigar — and the fact that I was understanding the story without totally understanding it, like I knew that this was the good guy and that was the bad guy (while the details of their quarrel went zooming over my head), reminded me of something I talked about in the Only Angels Have Wings post: it seems like a movie of its time in that there’s plenty of exposition but the plot is driven by a MacGuffin that would be of zero interest to a modern audience. Like in Only Angels Have Wings — the movie is basically about mail carriers. It’s made dramatic and suspenseful because of the characters and their relationships, but still.

Mail carriers.

Same goes for the whole bank thing in It’s a Wonderful Life. Granted, a lot of the people watching it had lived through the Great Depression and were probably a little more conscious of banks and probably had stronger opinions/feelings about them than we do today (or more than we will until the next crash).

it's a wonderful life villain
The villain, obviously.

Where the movie really takes off is when George’s aloof and avuncular older colleague loses the $8k that the bank needs in order to stay open. It falls into the hands of the evil old guy. So George starts freaking out, they search for the money anywhere, and after getting plowed one night and attempting suicide he’s visited by his guardian angel, played by Henry Travers, who shows him what the small town would look like if George had never been born. Kind of a Dickens thing there, and it doesn’t play out in a particularly interesting way, but director Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Bitter Tea of General Yen) doesn’t dwell on any particular episode too long and we move through it at a swift enough clip that it never gets old.

In the end, finally, George is reunited with his family and he’s got a new appreciation for life, even if it means he’ll lose his business and go to jail — but, of course, that doesn’t happen. What happens is the people in town learn that he’s in a bind and they show up to his house to donate all of the money he needs. They’ve all got stories, too, about how different they know their lives would be if George hadn’t always been there to help them out.

it's a wonderful life angel
George and his angel, Odbody

And this put a weirdly sudden and serious lump in my throat. Lately, in the wake of a breakup, the people in whom I’ve confided about this thing between me and Rosie, where she wanted to go out more and have a kind of fun I don’t think I can provide, have been quick to tell me that they enjoy my company just fine, “if that’s any consolation,” and to go into detail sometimes about how much they laugh when they talk with me, or that I introduce them to neat things, get them thinking. It’s natural that after a breakup a person becomes more appreciative of family and friends but I think I’m really…over the moon about it at the moment. The idea that the people in your life appreciate you without saying anything, that of all the people who harbor private opinions about you there’s a good chance that the majority of those opinions are positive. Maybe even admiring.

I watched this a little after 6 a.m. and it set a pretty good tone for the day to come.


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