Summary: “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a remembrance of that innocence.
Every Christmas season I watch Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” on television. It’s not that I plan it or anything; it just happens to come on some night when I happen to be watching TV. Usually, one of the networks will air the movie on the 23rd of December; sometimes even Christmas Eve. This year “It’s A Wonderful Life” came early, in the first week of the month.
I really love that movie. I guess I’ve known about it most of my life. It’s been on television every year as long as I’ve been alive. But I never really sat down to watch it, start to finish, until about eight years ago. Old black and white 1947 era sentimental movies aren’t exactly “young people” fare, so I guess I had to grow a few gray hairs before I could appreciate it.
A lot of folks probably think a sixty-year old feel-good movie is a little too schmaltzy for the days we’re living in now. I think just the opposite. I think the movie’s sentimentality is a testament to something we’ve lost over the last six decades. I’m not much of a nostalgia buff and I don’t believe the “good old days” were necessarily as good as we imagine. We tend to romanticize the hardships and exaggerate the good times. But we did lose something I wish we hadn’t. Somewhere in our progress and advancement as a society we’ve lost our innocence and naiveté as a people. I do miss that.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” is a remembrance of that innocence. For those who need a quick refresher, the movie is about a guy named George Bailey. George is a small town guy with big plans. He wants to see the world and make something of himself out there in it. The problem is that his plans always seem to be frustrated by the needs of those around him. On the eve of his departure for university, the gateway to his “bigger” life, George’s father dies suddenly, leaving George to put his plans on hold and stay in sleepy little Bedford Falls to tend the family’s savings and loan business.
Back in 1947 the Savings and Loan was where folks borrowed the money to build or buy their own homes; a new practice for the working class at the time. For a working family, owning your own home meant escaping the serfdom of a landlord; usually the same man or institution that owned everything else in the town. Taking ownership of your home was symbolic of taking ownership of your life. You no longer considered yourself under the lordship of the landlord.
The landlord in Bedford Falls was Mr. Potter. He was a mean old man; mean and rich. Potter owned the town … except for the Savings and Loan and the homes of those to whom George gave loans. Owning the town was personal to Potter and Bailey’s Savings and Loan grated him. George and his business were all that stood between Potter and domination of the town.
George knew that. So he put his plans on hold for a few years and stayed in Bedford Falls. A few years became a few years more … and then a few years more. George always stood in the gap; keeping the doors of the Savings and Loan open and the townspeople out of Potter’s grasp. It seemed that every time they moved ahead some emergency would push them behind. The day George could leave town for a bigger life seemed to always be just beyond his reach.
Well, this Christmas another emergency was cast upon the Savings and Loan. Only, this one was bigger than the rest. George was floored; this was just too big to overcome and it promised to sink the business.
Here he was, years of his plans being put on hold, years of his life wasted in this little town, years of his family living on a shoestring while his friends saw the world, built great businesses and great wealth. George had been stuck, foregoing his dreams to give his life to the people of this one-horse town.
Now the Savings and Loan was sure to come to ruin. It would close its doors forever and Potter would have his way. The townspeople would be pulled back into the poverty and servitude that came with Potter’s world. George’s family, who had sacrificed and skimped right along with him through the years, would suffer the same fate.
There was nowhere to turn, no answer in sight. George had failed the business, failed the town and failed his family. Thoughts of suicide entered his mind. His life insurance policy was the last thing he had of any value; at least his wife and children would be clothed and fed for awhile. It would be better for everyone, he reasoned, if he had never been born.