Last night, we had potato soup, and asparagus, and grilled cheese, and settled in to watch It’s A Wonderful Life. (Yes, we were a few days late, but as Jews, we get the you-don’t-have-to-watch-it-before-Christmas exemption. Very handy!)
Oddly, I hadn’t seen Wonderful Life in a good couple of years, despite it being one of my favorite films of all time. Ever. In the history of filmdom. Or ever.
There was a while in this country when you could literally spend Christmas Eve flipping from broadcast to broadcast, as each channel played it in turn, and some years, that’s just what I did. In Israel, I watched it a few times on December 24 on Middle East TV (an odd evangelical station that broadcast from Cyprus but talked as if it were in Lebanon), and would inevitably feel oddly bereft for a few hours afterward.
But it’s been awhile. So last night, sharing it with my kids, as the snow fell lightly outside our window and we all snuggled up under blankets, felt good.
What has always held me so close, I think, is George Bailey’s humanity. He is a round character, a man of flesh and blood and dreams and resentments, a man who fails to live up to his own standards now and then, a man who is deeply good but is also, in the end, deeply human. This is, to my mind, the real genius of the movie.
But last night, I gained something new, too: George’s life — for all the divine intervention and love of his fellows — isn’t made to magically meet his dreams.
He isn’t given a cruise ticket by Uncle Billy, or a job in London by Sam Wainwright. Mr. Potter doesn’t get his comeuppance, or a well-deserved prison term. George is left with precisely the life he has been forced, through temperament and circumstance, to build for himself. You reap what you sow, and George has sown love and respect — and he gets that in spades, as the movie closes.
But we would be fools to think that his life now becomes easy, or adventure-filled, or devoid of the frustrations a Mr. Potter can heap on a man of principle — or even that George doesn’t continue to have his little fits of resentment and occasional crazy eyes (Jimmy Stewart, I love you so, but those eyes were over the top!)
No, George is as caught, and as stuck, as he ever was. The giddy joy in the end comes of suddenly knowing the real value of what he has, even if it’s nowhere near what he wanted.
It is perhaps unsurprising that this aspect of the film (something that was clearly always there) resonated with me as Aught-Nine draws to a close. I am, minus the threat of a jail term, George Bailey — a middle-aged American with unfulfilled and apparently unfulfillable dreams, all the appropriate resentments and occasional throwing of fits, and what is, bottom line, a Wonderful Life. No angel, but I have read Tom Sawyer.
Toward the end, Clarence says to an increasingly frantic and frightened George: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Perhaps my goal should be to live a life that will leave an awful hole.
And because I love you so, here’s one of my favorite scenes:
(Oh, and hey: Happy new year!)