by Alvin G. Burstein
With Christmas approaching, I found myself wanting to re-view the 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life. It is said to be director Frank Capra’s favorite film, one that he screened for his family each Christmas season. Not just Capra’s favorite, it is listed as the most inspirational American film of all time, one that you will almost certainly have a chance to view this season.
I found it on Amazon, happily still in black and white, the format reinforcing the film’s evocation of an earlier time in our county. Or maybe more accurately, no time, a perennial moment.
The film begins oddly, with a celestial conversation. Angels represented as cartoonish stars are discussing the immanent suicide of the protagonist George Bailey. An intern angel, Clarence, one still lacking wings, is assigned to save Bailey, thus earning his wings. The frank irreality of this introduction contrasts with the black and white everydayness of what follows. Like the formulaic “once upon a time,” it is an effective invocation to suspend disbelief, an announcement that what follows is a parable rather than a history.
To prepare Clarence, he is shown flashbacks of George’s life, which we share as the opening movement of the story. George’s leit motif is altruism, what in Freudian terms would be called moral masochism. He saves his younger brother from drowning at the cost of losing his hearing in one ear. He forestalls a fatal mistake by a local pharmacist and is wrongfully punished. Most poignantly, he relinquishes his dreams of leaving the dusty little town of Bedford Falls for travel and education so that his younger brother can so indulge while George takes the place of their father in the family savings and loan business.
This last sacrifice is the crux of the tale. In Bedford Falls, George’s father has dedicated himself to a communitarian effort to help people own their own homes. His opposite number is Henry Potter, grasping, devious and selfish, who seeks control of the town and his own enrichment. When George’s father dies, George deliberately abandons his dreams, successfully replacing his father as the town’s bulwark against Potter’s schemes.
Two events trigger a catastrophic eruption: George’s dotty uncle, employed at the family savings and loan, misplaces eight thousand dollars needed to avoid bankruptcy and one of George’s children becomes ill. Hitherto generous and loving George explodes in rageful recriminations and abuse, terrifying his family and friends. Raddled with anger, shame and guilt, George prays fruitlessly for help and is on the verge of throwing himself to his death in the town’s wintery waters.
The prayers George thought fruitless were those that occasioned intern angel Clarence’s assignment. Clarence forestalls the suicide and undertakes to persuade George that his life was worth living by creating an alternate reality, one in which George had never been born. George learns what Bedford Falls would have been without him: a trashy Pottersville unhappily peopled.
George begs for a second chance and is transported back to a reality where he joyfully finds his wife, family and friends working to fend off the impending bankruptcy. An outpouring of grateful financial contributions from the beneficiaries of his caring life saves him and the family business. Surrounded by a laudatory crowd his friendships make him the richest man in Bedford Falls-and Clarence earns his angelic wings. The film is a moral parable, a psychoanalytic one and an existential one. Morally, it affirms the value of communitarianism over unbridled capitalism.
Psychoanalytically, it highlights the potential for disruptions in a false self, one that disowns a vital personal agenda thus generating a disavowed part of the self and a consequent potential for eruption.
Its existential message is that we are not alone in an uncaring world-or so we hope.