The dark side of It’s A Wonderful Life

I’m always slightly confused when the movie It’s A Wonderful Life gets lumped in with other “sugary” holiday movies, because it is anything but. Oh, to be sure, it has it’s share of gooey sentimentality, and of course in the end Carpa goes rigth for for the marshmallow moment and, I think by most any standard, hits it dead on, but there is also a serious dark side to this movie that it seems to me most people tend to ignore or perhaps block out, maybe because it ends on such a feel-goody moment. Of course, that moment wouldn’t nearly have the impact that it does if it wasn’t for what directly precedes it. I’m talking about George’s descent into a kind of madness that comes into full view in a close up shot of him staring directly into the camera after encountering his mother, a once warm and wonderful woman turned bitter and cynical and distrusting, who does not recognize him, her own son. For me that is truly one of the most terrifying moments in cinema.

This article explains more.

The author of the piece writes:

Lots of people love this movie of course. But I’m convinced it’s for the wrong reasons. Because to me “It’s a Wonderful Life” is anything but a cheery holiday tale.

I’ve always thought pretty much the same thing, which explains may explain my attachment to it for years, even as a younger man when I was rather cynical about Christmas. Of course, in many ways I still am, but I realized some time ago that no one wants to hear my laments. Also, I have a daughter who is not quite eight and I don’t want to be the one to disillusion here. Life will do that soon enough, I fear, and expect.

Anyhoo… the truth about this so-called happy holiday movie is this:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

What could be more disturbing? Seriously, I want to know.

The author of this article points out an irony that I’d never really considered before:

Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It’s been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s scheming financier.

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

Perhaps because I disagree that what Pottersville is is what George really wants. True, he wants the shake off the dust of that sleepy little town and see the world, which may include honky tonks and dance clubs and even prostitutes, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want Bedford Falls to stay exactly the way it is. He does. He just doesn’t want to be stuck there all the time. But he does want it there to return to, you know, when seeing the world becomes tiresome, making him weary for a saner, more pure world. George might not be able to articulate it but that doesn’t make it not so. After all who of us have left home and returned haven’t been at least slightly disappointed at any changes that have occurred in our absence. It doesn’t just seem not right, it feels like a person slight.

The author also points out that just because a bunch of people show up at George’s house with enough dough for him to account for the missing $8,000 doesn’t meant he wouldn’t still got to jail. I’ve always suspected as much myself. But I figured, you know, since everyone in town basically loves George that they’d be willing to simply look they other way blah blah blah. Problem solved. Besides, it’s Christmas….whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Perhap I am even more warped than the author of this article, but I can’t help wondering about the implications for the future of George and Mary’s marriage. It seems to me it could be headed for trouble. There’s nothing to indicate that George and Mary are particularly religious. They’re married in the Bailey Boarding house after all. Mary isn’t wearing a gown but rather a skirt suite, thought that may just be out of convenience so that they can bolt town for their honeymoon after the ceremony. Still, even George admits in his most dire moment that he is not a praying man. In any case, one can assume that they aren’t particularly bound by rigid church tenants regarding marriage, not that one has to be particularly religious or even religious at all to take one’s marriage very seriously anymore than being religious is a guarantee that one’s marriage will be more solid. That’s only part of my point. What I was considering is that even thought Mary is wonderful wife and mother and homemaker, not to mention attractive and passionated woman — shit, they have four kids — one has to consider the possibility for,uh, extra-marital shenanigans on George’s part with Violet Bick deciding to NOT leave town. It’s clear from the time she’s a young girl that she’s got a thing for George Porgie and has not compulsion about throwing over whomever she happens to be with at the time to tempt him with her allure. Not to mention she’s not friend of Mary’s. In fact, on can easily imagine that Violet might even take a certain kind of pleasure in luring saintly Mary Hatch’s husband away from their marital bed. I know I can. Surely I’m not the one. Come on people, don’t leave me hanging by my twisted rope alone.

Of course, in her despair over such a betrayal, one can imagine Mary her pique running into the arms of Sam Wainwright, who might feel that he is due something in return for the 25 grand his office forwards to The Bailey Building and Loan. And what better compensation than a tumbled with sweet Mary who threw him over for George in the first place. And things would only spiral out of control from there. And then what would become of Bedford Falls? The possibilities are frightening, and I think would make quite an interesting sequel.


5 responses to “The dark side of It’s A Wonderful Life

  1. Wow. That was really good. I have a lot of thoughts going through my head right now. First of all, this is going to sound so ridiculous and pompous but I have for years refused to watch this movie. I know the storyline, I know the premise and I’ve always known it was dark and so I won’t watch it. So, count me in the ranks of the warp-minded, I guess. It’s not that everything I watch has to be cheery, even at the holidays. I mean, one of my favorite movies is Hotel Rwanda. Hello. Not exactly a pleasure-seeking adventure given machete wagging barbarians.

    What I don’t like is exactly what you call the marshmallow moment. Man, you and Jennifer from Wisconsin should be writing reviews for the alternative newspaper in town. Seriously. You guys are good. And, while I’m thinking about it, have you joined up with Chuck Westbrook’s Blog Club and are you following Johnny Truant? He has a post about Christmas that I think is very Gen X, and I think if I were doing comparative blog literature (hahahahahaha) I’d be comparing and contrasting you and Johnny Truant. Check him out. And, yeah, eventually, some lit professor is going to write a syllabus for comparative posts. =0

    I have so many blogs I follow, and each feeds a different part of my life, my brain. You, Latchkey Man, Johnny, Old Man Neil – you’re all up there together. The most Gen X of the Gen Xers. Oh, on my blue plate special, which I will repost on Monday – there are two Gen X memoirs you should check out. One is on the blog Josh and Josh. The other on i have links in the post. Jennifer from Wisconsin and I want to do a collection of Gen X essays by men. Are you in? I’m working on a contract to equally divide all proceeds should the book be, like, up there with, ummm, The Bridges of Madison County. Hahahahahahaha! This is my big project for 2009. Essays are 500 to 2,000 words, and that publisher I mentioned to you before – that’s the one I have in mind for pitching this to once complete.

  2. Thanks, Jen. I always appreciate your comments. Thank you especially for the belief that I could write movie reviews or whatever. I kind of needed that compliment right now, needed the ego boost. If only I could get such a gig. Ah, well, in the mean time I enjoy scribbling my blatherings here.

    Also, a quick note on the offer to contribute an essay to your GenX collection. I’d love to. Not sure exactly what I’d write about. Were you thinking of a particular theme or whatever? Or just allowing writers to pick their topics? Or perhaps discuss possible topics first? Keep me posted, please.

    I’ve actually been wracking my brain to try and recall precisely when was the first time I first watched It’s A Wonderful Life. I have to imagine, knowing my attitude toward Christmas, even at a young age, that I initially avoided it like the plague. So then what made me finally watch it? I don’t know. I must have been in my twenties, a particularly cynical time for me, although it is funny because in my early- to mid-twenties I was an undergrad at Eastern Michigan and I still consider those to be some of the best years of my life. Of course, the years leading just up to that time was quite — how should I put is — raucous, I guess. A lot of partying and all that entails when one thinks of the early and mid-80s.

    Anyhoo…even though I can not summon up my first memory of watching It’s A Wonderful Life, once I did, I was hooked. I’ve watched every year since for at least 15 years now. Most years I’ve watched it several times. Of course, I own it on VHS, although not yet on DVD. But I recall that my favorite time to watch it was on late on Christmas Eve after getting home from the big family holiday party at my grandparents, or sometimes even later than that, those years I would head to my friends house after family stuff to celebrate. In that case were talking catching it on the TV at like 3 or 4 am.

    I don’t think I thought much about the darker qualities of the It’s A Wonderful Life at the time, but I’m sure that instinctively I was drawn to it because of that. It wasn’t until later, as I began developing my, oh so impressive critical and analyitical skills, did I delve into deconstructing it, which only made me enjoy it all the more.

    Ultimately, I think there is something particularly GenX about It’s A Wonderful Life, in it’s ability to be both sentimental and nostolgic as well as sort of cynical and pessimistic. I mean, it’s seems pretty pathetic not to mention unlikely that everyone in the town of Bedford Falls sucumbs to their venal nature as a result of George not being around.

    In a way, it’s kind of a GenX superhero/wish fullfillment story. George saves the world, of Bedford Falls anyway, and by doing the nitty gritty, thankless work that no one else wants to. And for the most part he accepts his lot in life, but still of course longs to do something, not greater or more important, but higher profile, something he’ll be noticed for. Of course, in the end he is given loads of recognition, which is all he’s ever really wanted. For people to gather around in his honor and raise a glass to toast him, aknowleding all that he as done and will continue to.

    But that’s just how I see it.

  3. Pingback: We need to talk…. « junkdrawer67

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