THE FOLLOWING ADMISSION probably makes me a socialist by somebody’s standards:
I just watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time.
I don’t know how I managed to skate through 40 Decembers without being roped onto the sofa to watch the cinematic tribulations of poor George Bailey. I guess in its ubiquity I’d assumed I’d already seen it. Or maybe I dismissed it as an outdated tearjerker shown around the holidays by lazy t.v. producers.
(It’s definitely not because Jimmy Stewart isn’t super-sexy. Perhaps you are not surprised that I was the only nerd in junior high to have a still from Rear Window in my locker.)
Mostly it’s because if I’m going to do a Christmas movie, it’s gonna be something that makes me snort eggnog out of my nose, like Ralphie and his BB gun from A Christmas Story.
Not some dusty piece of emotional manipulation that makes us otherwise–well–adjusted Jewish kids feel awkward.
But circumstances converged recently that brought me in front our cable–less TV on a Saturday evening, and I was immediately hooked by the plucky banter and Jimmy Stewart’s adorable, gulpy voice.
I was already schooled on the storyline by cultural osmosis: An angel, eager to earn his wings, is sent down to save some shmo from jumping off a bridge by showing him how awful the world would be without him.
But you probably already know that’s only the last quarter of the story. What kind of blew my mind, apart from the ladies’ hairstyles, was how current Frank Capra’s 1946 classic seemed (der, that’s what makes it a classic, genius.)
I had made the assumption that a little ol’ black and white talkie that came out before pantyhose was invented couldn’t possibly apply to life in the 21st century. Turns out I’m still an arrogant young whippersnapper.
The film’s original Depression–era audience was reflected back on itself with the fictional town of Bedford Falls, full of good folks held financial hostage by a greedy opportunist.
Sound familiar? All that banking and mortgage dialogue sounded so much like Headline News I thought my flatscreen had gone wonky.
The people’s only small hope is the populist Bailey Building & Loan company started by George Bailey’s father, full of integrity but short on cunning. Then as now, with a few exceptions, the best people tend to make the worst capitalists.
George Bailey wants nothing more than to shake off the dust of his “crummy little town” and see the world, but fate trumps him. I was already weepy halfway in, empathizing with his frustration as he continually chooses to shoulder the responsibilities of the life before him, instead of the glamour and adventure he imagined for himself.
My own personal pity party threatened to erupt as I recalled my own plans after college. Like George, I’ve always had a travel itch like a chronic case of chiggers. I figured by 40, I would have written several bestsellers and looped the globe at least a few dozen times, taking in operas in Vienna and dancing ‘til dawn in the clubs in Ibiza.
I got different set of blessings in the form of marriage and kids, which I wouldn’t trade for all the frequent flyer points in the world. But I admit I could totally relate when George loses it over a kid plinka–plinking the same damn song on the piano over and over.
It’s a tough pill to realize becoming the best person you can be might involve letting go of who you think you are. Who among us can say that life has gone as planned? Who hasn’t put aside the urges to “build great things” and go to faraway places in order to punch a clock for faceless management and bike to Kroger at 10 p.m. for diapers?
So many good, hard–working people lost homes this year, had marriages fall apart, a child die. If you haven’t screwed up and been screwed over and aren’t just outright pissed off about it sometimes, maybe you just ain’t living.
As the last adult in the world to see It’s a Wonderful Life, the biggest surprise is that it’s not so much a Christmas movie as it is about dreams deferred, even destroyed, and still retaining the capacity to receive the gifts right in front of us.
Usually, those gifts come in the form of guardian angels here on earth. Lately mine are the neighbor who swept the entire block free of pine needles, the customer service rep who gave my complaint full attention, the moms who pick up my kids from school when I’m stuck on deadline.
May none of us need to stare down an icy river to be reminded to count our blessings. As we “work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath” and do our best to nurture the aspirations that give our days verve and meaning, let me paraphrase the words of Clarence, the second-class angel: No one is a failure who has friends.
So you and me? Winning.
Last week, I rushed from work to sit in a church hall for the school band concert and listen to a stage full of second graders with knit brows play “Jingle Bells” on slightly screechy violins. Vienna opera, it was not.
An impossibly tiny old woman sat next to me, humming along. Just someone’s angelic grandma.
“Aren’t they just lovely?” she murmured.
Yes, ma’am. Wonderful, even.
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