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Stephen Speicher

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

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4 posts in this topic

I have terribly mixed feelings about this movie, but I can't talk about them without revealing the plot so...

Warning: There are spoilers about this movie in this post.

This movie is justifiably thought of as a christmas classic, something reliably shown on TV often enough that it has become as much a part of the American Christmas mythology as Santa and the Three Wise Men.

I say "justifiably" because it uses shameless, but highly effective emotional manipulation to tell the story of a man who never achieved his highest ideals, but is ultimately redeemed by his good works. And that climax gets me every damn time.

But what's the story -really- about?

We first see the hero George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart in one of his quintessential decent American man roles, in such a despondent state of mind that he wants to commit suicide.

Through the device of a conversation between angels, we see George's life up to that point. We see an adventurous spirit with a desire to see the world and leave the small town he grew up in. But then, over the course of this angelic flashback into George Bailey's life, we see some of the most exquisitely rendered spiritual torture ever rendered in film. We see George Bailey slowly giving up each and every one of his dreams. Not all at once, like a Mephistophelean bargain, but slowly, and over time. Like a Chinese water torture.

The story does tell us, with great psychological honesty, that George becomes filled with self-loathing. After giving up all his dreams, he feels like he has nothing left. He's driven to that point because he's in debt, his business is failing, his house is falling apart, and he feels himself growing distant to his family. He has given everything up, and for what?

But the angel shows him, in sort of a sideways Dickens kind of way, what the world would have been like had he never been born, and he becomes rejuvenated by his impact on the world, the lives he had saved by just being around, and the lives saved by those lives, etc.

Ultimately, he's bailed out (pun sort-of intended) by the very people he's helped over the years in the final climax. Which, as I've said, gets me every damn time.

But still.

The toxicity of this movie is that it blends the American sense of life with the altruistic ideal. It uses the strength of American values, but puts them in the service of self-sacrifice.

I can't bring myself to completely condemn this movie, even though I know that this mix of American vitality with altruist morality is particularly vile. Jimmy Stewart is very very good as George Bailey. And even so, I don't think I would have stayed with this character's journey if the incandescent Donna Reed, who plays his high school sweetheart and ultimately his wife, weren't with him. They're so good together, and you really want them to just be happy.

But in the end, what do we have? George never left Bedford Falls, he never saw the world, and he never had his adventures. He has a loving wife, and beautiful family, a middling business on the brink of insolvency, and a crumbling house.

But hey, we all have to make compromises in life and grow up. Right?

Which, now that I think about it, might be why this movie has achieved its mythic status in this country.

It gives some solace to the many people in this country whose birthright was that Can-do American sense of life, but they compromised it for the sake of altruism, the only moral ideal they ever knew.

And that might be the most toxic thing of all.

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And that might be the most toxic thing of all.

Also, toxic for the people that agree with the premise of the movie. I find that people that hold and agree with the premises of this movie are depressed and mean. Mean when they see that you are enjoying your life and they are not. Depressed because they have given up or lost everything that meant something to them.

I have never liked this movie, even long before reading Ayn Rand.

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I think Joel's analysis is very good. This film was not particularly successful at the box-office when it was released, but has become popular slowly, after the fact, over the years. I think this indicates two things: 1) It's a Wonderful Life is artistically good, i.e. it effectively conveys its theme. 2) Fewer U.S. citizens implicitly rejection altruism now than in 1946.

I think this film has grown in popularity because the implicit general rejection of the altruism in it (indicated by its relative unpopularity with U.S. audiences in 1946) has simply not been effective against its artistically well-conveyed message over the long-term. The American sense of life that implicitly rejected the altruism in this film has been under a concerted attack from its intellectuals for an additional fifty years since the film was released, which has had its effects.

I strongly agree that the film is highly effective in emotional manipulation, and think that the bulk of the effect is achieved by package-dealing many important real values with the dis-value of self-sacrifice. I think an analysis of it can reveal important ways in which evil is perpetrated via the art of film. And I've found it very interesting to analyze (and to discuss among rational people). But you have to want to do it.

There is a LOT going on in this film, which, artistically-speaking is very well-done. The direction, dialog, and acting are excellent.

****SPOILER*******

My favorite part of this film is toward the very end. It is George's (Jimmy Stewart's) expression, both in his face and his voice, when he first sees his brother Harry in-the-flesh and smiling, a grown up hero returned from the war in one piece, after George had recently seen Harry's childhood grave in the horrifying alternate world shown to him by the angel. I find the situation and the (excellent) acting most effective at that moment.

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