Some Kind of Wonderful Life
It's easy to view Capra's It's a Wonderful Life
as a simple morality play, a light confection complete with an angel named Clarence, ringing bells and an ultra-happy ending; all elements of what many have come to call Capra-corn
. But there's more at work in this movie, an examination of the dark side of the American dream, and signified by more than just the twenty-minute film noir nightmarish interlude. It's why the movie has become such a holiday staple and has stood the test of time. If it was all just frosting, one wonders whether it would have become the phenomenon it has?
Certainly, the humor, fantasy, theatricality and overt romanticism of It's a Wonderful Life
make it easy to watch and a sheer pleasure, even (or perhaps especially) upon repeated viewings. Within the first few minutes, most are weeping already as young George is slapped around before Old Man Gower realizes what George has done for him. There are fanciful references to travel and adventure, a young girl whispering her undying love, and an unending cast of characters that make the viewer feel right at home with George and Bedford Falls, almost as if they'd grown up there themselves.
As lovable as the town is, though, George can't wait to escape. He's filled with hope and an anxious yearning to "see the world" and do and build Big Things. This kind of dreaming big is quintessentially American, the idea that regardless from where one comes, something bigger and better can actually happen. George (and many Americans) are sometimes setting themselves up, and many times do not realize other dreams worth living right in their own backyard, right in front of their faces.
With Peter Bailey (George's father, who's already earned his wings, as the butterflies behind him in the photo above attest) and in Mary, especially, the possibilities for a wonderful life for George right in his home town are made abundantly clear. But it's not enough for George. He's got something else in mind, something he believes will make him happy. Perhaps it's because he wants something from life just different from the one he knows, something beyond what his father has achieved before him.
His father's death, and then his brother's departures keep him shackled to the tiny town, delaying and snuffing out his dreams. Due to circumstance and out of a sense of obligation, George does what he has to do, all along hearing train whistles, looking out on the horizon and building toy bridges and train sets, in feeble attempts to keep lit the fire of his long-held passion.
All throughout the movie, George's frustration is palpable, even during the angriest marriage proposal ever to soul mate, Mary. He's constantly kicking things, then screaming at people, even his own family. This sense of suffocation or claustrophobia is what makes Potter's offer of employment and riches so tempting, if only for a moment.
Now, Potter is cartoonish and a gross stereotype, and many will say this is then an indictment of capitalism. But one can say the Bailey's could have run their business a bit more efficiently, and if George had taken the route his hee-haw pal Sam Wainwright did, it may not have been all bad. It's just another path, another choice. After all, Sam offers George many chances to do well financially, and really comes through in the end, with cash when George needs it most of all. That Sam the businessman isn't a bad guy. The point for George isn't that his life is better because he stayed at the Building & Loan, it's that when he stayed, he would've been better off being more happy in his choice.
Thanks to the bumbling Uncle Billy, money troubles provide the trigger for the years of aggravation to come boiling up for George and spill over. At a point of absolute desperation, he destroys the symbols, therefore the possibility of his big dreams, lashes out at his children and others, finally praying to a God in which he's not sure he believes for guidance and help, ready even to destroy his own life.
The aid comes in a form unexpected to George, a 200-plus-year-old angel who favors Twain. Amidst the fantasy and comic relief, George is thrown into a nightmare of his own wishing, a world where he's never been born. In a movie so full of laughs, life and joy, George finds himself staring into the abyss, a vision far worse than never achieving that for which he's always strived.
Before he finds the abyss staring back at him, he pulls himself from the brink, begging for his life to return. For so long, all while searching for and following his bliss, he hasn't truly appreciated all he has, all he's accomplished, whose lives he's positively affected. While pursuing happiness, he's missed countless opportunities to choose to be content, even if it's not all for which he's ever dreamed.
Even with the happiest of happy endings, one can not say George will live the rest of his life in utter contentment, that he'll let go of those old dreams, but one can hope that he's seen the light, that he (and us, the viewers) will be a little more appreciative of what he's got, and the loved ones who surround him.
One thing's for sure, as we see those same butterflies reappear in the last scene, Clarence is not the only one who's earned his wings.