CASTALIA: “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Dark, Brutal, and the most Superversive movie ever made

Okay, I’ve been waiting ALL YEAR to do the “It’s a Wonderful Life” post for Superversive Tuesday. For those living under a rock, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the endlessly remade and parodied Christmas classic about a man, George Bailey, on the verge of suicide. Before he can complete this ultimate act of despair God (!!!) briefs the witless but kind-hearted angel Clarence on the important details of George’s life, so that he understands the background and context of George’s actions before attempting to save his soul. And that’s where we get our movie.

I’m not going to bother adding spoiler warnings for this film. If you haven’t seen it, do so right now. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is far more than one of the greatest holiday movies ever, it is one of the greatest movies ever made PERIOD. While most famous for its brilliant ending, where Clarence shows George what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he didn’t exist, the entire movie is excellent, featuring underrated performances from Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and a rich character study on the level of “A Christmas Carol”. It’s as much of a must-watch movie as “Casablanca” – you really can’t call yourself a fan of films without seeing it.

But the film doesn’t need me to sing its praises. What I want to focus on is a curious kind of nostalgia that I’ve noticed follows this film around. People tend to have this idea that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a happy movie and Bedford Falls almost a platonic ideal of small town life, probably because of its upbeat ending and status as a holiday film (holiday films being rightly notorious for trite sentimentality).

A rewatch dispels such a silly notion very quickly. That is, if anything, the opposite of the truth. Bedford Falls is a coin flip – one life – away from being a terrible, terrible place. Drunken drug store owners beat disabled children. A cruel business tycoon (Mr. Potter, played to perfection by Lionel Barrymore) has near-dictatorial control over half of the town. A man punches George in the mouth moments before the famous suicide scene. There is, of course, much to love about Bedford Falls, but it is not even close to being the ideal of small town life.

Author Flannery O’Connor, best known for her brilliantly dark and very funny short stories (I consider her the best short story writer of all time and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” the best short story ever written), once said (though I can’t find the exact quote) that nihilists didn’t understand nihilism as well as moral men, in the same way that men at the bottom of a cliff looking around don’t understand how far they’ve fallen as well as the man looking down from the top of the cliff. O’Connor considered it her duty to yell into the void and force those men to look up, and perhaps find their way back into the light.

One gets a similar impression watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Capra ultimately comes out in favor of domestic life and family, but he doesn’t sugarcoat just how much needs to be sacrificed. Watch the famous, and brilliant, scene where Mary attempts to seduce George:

This is an absolutely brutal scene from start to finish. The ending, when George yells at, shakes, then embraces Mary, is one of the most moving, and most difficult to watch, moments I’ve seen any movie. Capra doesn’t sugarcoat what George needs to give up. George is tempted with money and with the escape he always dreamed of. He’s offered “the chance of a lifetime”. And he turns it down.

And for what? He’s stuck in near-poverty, in the same small town he’s lived in his entire life, robbed of the chance to live out his dreams.

All he gains is Mary. And to George, and to Capra, it’s worth it. But it’s not easy.

George himself – the most fundamentally decent human being you’ll ever see – is always one half step out of poverty. He longs to escape the confines of Bedford Falls, but every time he gets the chance, his own good nature intervenes. It is very important thematically that George is NEVER “forced” to stay. He takes control of the family business specifically to prevent Potter from taking over. His brother offers to let him go off to college, but George decides to let him take a lucrative job offer. Mr. Potter offers George a high-paying salary with the promise of business trips to faraway places, but George sees through Potter’s plan and elects to keep himself and his family in near-poverty.

And as we learn later, he HAD to do all of this, because if he hadn’t, Bedford Falls would have descended into a dystopia! This is dark. This is really, really dark. At one point, when George is reduced to begging Mr. Potter for help, Potter refers to George as a “warped, frustrated young man”, and it’s very hard to disagree.

Some of the smarter reviewers pick up on how dark this movie really is; but the most foolish of all call it depressing, or even heretical. One reviewer (representative of a species) describes it thus:

 But mistrust, for instance, any work which tries to persuade me–or rather, which assumes that I assume–that there is so much good in nearly all the worst of us that all it needs is a proper chance and example, to take complete control. I mistrust even more deeply the assumption, so comfortably stylish these days, that whether people turn out well or ill depends overwhelmingly on outside circumstances and scarcely if at all on their own moral intelligence and courage. Neither idea is explicit in this movie, but the whole story depends on the strong implication and assumption of both.

So here I need to ask…were we watching the same movie? “All the worst of us?” You mean like Mr. Potter, who is a petty would-be tyrant no matter which reality we’re talking about? And George Bailey is a guy who has suffered bad break after bad break, and who retains his core of basic human decency regardless. If anything, the whole movie hinges on the exact opposite of those assumptions: That there will always be the evil Mr. Potters of the world, and without the decent men like George Bailey, evil will triumph. (This, by the way, is why I have no problem with Potter never being shown his comeuppance, because it was never really about Potter – it was about George, and when the credits roll Potter is already as defeated as he ever truly could be).

The reviewer seems to have a particularly curious version of the problem of wanting things both ways: There is not so much innate good in each of us that it will always come out with the proper example, but at the same time whether or not a person turns out well has to depend on things innately good about them (moral intelligence and courage). In essence, we are supposed to believe the movie is flawed because the reviewer flatly rejects that the George Baileys of the world could ever make the world any better at all – put even more succinctly, we’re all doomed. He says as much later:

Yet at its best, which is usually inextricable with its worst, I feel that this movie is a very taking sermon about the feasibility of a kind of Christian semi-socialism, a society founded on affection, kindliness, and trust, and that its chief mistake or sin –an enormous one–is its refusal to face the fact that evil is intrinsic in each individual, and that no man may deliver his brother, or make agreement unto God for him.

In other words: The chief mistake of the movie is assuming that a guy like George Bailey could make any difference at all. In this reviewer’s world, George is a chump; he might as well have thrown himself off the bridge for all the good it could have done.

I just don’t understand this attitude. It’s the polar opposite of everything the Superversive movement stands for. It’s like ending “Awake in the Night Land” with “Silence of the Night” (if you don’t get the reference, stop reading and buy the book right now). Forget truth or lies for a moment. It’s simply bad drama.

Near the end of his article, the reviewer says this:

 I am occasionally mystified why the Catholic church, which is so sensitive to the not very grave danger to anybody’s soul of watching Jennifer Jones trying to be a sex actress–roughly the equivalent of the rich man worming around in the needle’s eye, or Archbishop Spellman as Christ’s Best Man–never raises an eyebrow, let alone hell, over the kinds of heresy and of deceit of the soul which are so abundant in films of this sort–to say nothing of the ideas given, in such films, of the life after death. 

It always baffles me that people don’t get the difference between something designed to physically titillate you and the presentation of fictional ideas. To claim that the film’s idea of life after death is heretical is to miss the point of fiction entirely, like claiming that the afterlife of Lewis’s “The Great Divorce” or “The Last Battle” doesn’t jive with all of the facts in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. Fiction is not about presenting facts, it’s about pointing towards a higher truth – and “It’s a Wonderful Life” is better at that than just about anything out there.

And how sad do you have to be to see heresy in that?