Hi, this is Diana, the person who rarely writes these essays. I’m writing now because, despite being a jaded individual who hates schmaltz, I love It’s a Wonderful Life.
I had never seen this movie until a few years ago. Of course, everyone knows the premise and the ending: an angel shows a suicidal man how awful his town would be if he had never been born, and then he goes home to find out that all his friends and neighbors have contributed to a proto-GoFundMe to bail him out of his financial trouble. But when I actually got the DVD and watched it, I realized that the parts I was familiar with were all in the last 20 minutes, and I had never seen the majority of the film. I was inspired to watch it by an article on the AVClub , in which I saw for the first time a distraught George Bailey coming home to berate his family, trash his living room, ask his wife why they have all these kids, and yell at his daughter’s teacher on the phone. It was eerily like a scene out of my own childhood, and I was cautiously intrigued.
It’s a nice thing to see, a person who has given up every good thing he has ever had for a person who needs it more, being noticed and helped by all the people who care about him in his hour of greatest need. If I think about it too hard, I don’t 100% buy that none of the 12 other kids sledding that day would pull Harry Bailey out of the water, or that without George hanging around being sexy, Mary Hatch wouldn’t have gone on to marry Sam Wainwright and spend her life draped in jewels and furs. But I don’t care. Jimmy Stewart can sell me on anything.
Thoughts from JRC:
What is utopia like if you don’t know you’re living in it? That’s the question asked by both The Simpsons and “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Everyone in Springfield is lucky, really lucky, to be where they’re at. As bad as catastrophes get, from sun blockers, to comet strikes, to Love Day riots, to government-funded containment domes, the residents can count on everything resetting by next week. Similarly, even though there’s a ‘snake’ in the garden of Eden that is Bedford Falls, the people have it pretty good.
But if you’re the linchpin of that utopia, the nail that gets pulled out, what happens then? We know what happens in Frank Capra’s classic. You take George Bailey out of Bedford Falls you get Pottersville, a diseased den sick with sin and spite. Not only does mean ol’ Mr. Potter control everything, but his influence has sucked the innate goodness out of everyone else. Is there such a person in Springfield, though? Some would argue that if you change even one little thing, like the guy who runs the Kwik-E-Mart, all of society would fall! The town has survived losses over the years, though: the passing of Maude, Bleeding Gums Murphy, and [possibly] Dr. Marvin Monroe (as well as in recent years Mrs. Krabapple). Not to mention that weird Principal Skinner retcon. Life there goes on the same as always.
There is one Springfieldian, though, who must be there to hold everything together. I’m talking, of course, about Marge Simpson. In season four’s “In Marge We Trust,” after days of playing nursemaid to her sick family, Marge winds up railroaded off to prison for a simple mistake. First the Simpson house goes to rot, followed quickly the townsfolk, who descend into riot when an effigy of Jimmy Carter* is unveiled. Ironically, incarceration is just the ticket to give Marge a much-needed break and introduce her to a supportive social network. Utopia for the rest of Springfield is a prison for her: “Hell is other people.” ~Jean-Paul Sartre and Marge Simpson.
Over the course of 10 seasons in Springfield, we see Homer Simpson devolve from a staunch family man and concerned community member into a self-absorbed narcissist. While the rest of the town accept their place as integral members of the community, Homer takes advantage of the situation. He proudly takes stupid risks, pushing the walls of acceptable behavior, knowing the universe will self correct and save him. He’s enjoying life too much to care. The story arc in “It’s A Wonderful Life” is George Bailey learning how much he’s meant to other people, that his personal sacrifices haven’t been in vain. In a sense, Clarence is trying to prove to George he hasn’t been taken advantage of. Imagine if upon arriving back in his proper timeline, George Bailey set out to use his vaunted position in the town to continually fleece his friends and neighbors for his own enrichment? That’s Homer starring in the awful sequel to “It’s A Wonderful Life” as produced by Frank Cross—Bill Murray’s character from “Scrooged.” Luckily, despite repeated attempts to exploit its success, no one in Hollywood has managed to crush “It’s A Wonderful Life’s” syrupy-sweet heart.