Something hasn’t been right with the holidays since It’s a Wonderful Life fell out of public domain and was scooped up by NBC which persists in grinchily allowing one, or at the most, two airings per Christmas season.
The movie used to run wall to wall on every tiny channel across cable land. At any time the week before Christmas, I might bump into Uncle Billy freaking out and rushing around looking for the bank deposit; George and Mary panting all over each other on the phone with Sam Wainright; Nick the bartender overreacting to Clarence’s flaming rum punch and tossing “you two pixies” out onto the snow. I took a great deal of comfort knowing that all was progressing as usual in Bedford Falls. No matter how ornery George got: “Why do we have to have all these kids, anyway?!” “Let me really tell you what I think about your wife!” I knew he would still find himself inevitably at the snowy bridge, approaching redemption.
Seldom have the forces of darkness been as gently vanquished in a movie, or so many lives saved through the actions of a single man. George Bailey saves Mr. Gower the pharmacist from a murder rap and alcoholism, as well as the child about to drink the pharmacist’s accidental poison. He saves Uncle Billy from the criminally insane hospital, presumably for being a drunk and bankrupt, Ma Bailey from running a sleazy boardinghouse and possible brothel; Violet from becoming a hooker; Mary from becoming a dried up spinster librarian whose runaway eyebrows somehow grow to ten times their size post high school. Nick is saved from running a joint where “every man here is drinkin’ ta get drunnnk”; and brother Harry is spared so he can save hundreds of others when he rescues “every man on that transport!” Even the town cop Ernie is rendered sweeter just by association with George.
Even better, the dynamic of an entire town, the winning Bedford Falls, is saved from Gomorrohic destruction as the wicked Pottersville. Again and again, George checks the evil capitalist Potter and his minions, sometimes cluelessly, but always effectively. GB makes the perfect Everyman because he’s no crusading do-gooder. He’s usually doing good only accidentally, while trying to achieve something else like his own dreams or selfish ends. The good George does is a by-product he not only doesn’t value, but crankily poo-poos. All he can see is his own life and how he thinks he has failed himself. That’s the brilliance of this movie and why I keep coming back for more. He’s an honestly humble man. And he’s real.
How many times have I seen it? At least twenty. Yet each time, against my expectations, I still thrill to see George racing past the old theater which is playing “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (a dance hall in P-ville) – and the snow falling on the town square strung with white Christmas lights. “Hullo, you old Building and Loan!” I cannot wait for him to make it home to Mary and the kids and the IRS examiner and the circle of friends. I can’t wait for the moment where George finally gets it.
It’s a lesson too good not to get over and over again.