It’s Christmas Day in Saint Paul. The snow has piled up along the roads in a scene right out of Bedford Falls, though more still than the frantic rush to life that George Bailey discovered just on time. Everyone has settled in to whatever they’ve prepared for, ready for a day buried in snow and memories. You can make of it what you want, like most things in life – a fluffy blanket of stillness or the weight of time falling around you. Both are good, in their own way.
This was the first year I treated my kids to the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” as part of a holiday tradition. I want them to understand the heritage of movies and books that make up our culture, and Capra’s classic had to come up eventually. It’s seen as a Christmas movie because the final scene is set so firmly in the holiday, but it’s about much more than that. It works at Christmas because it provides so much context for the holiday.
The film is the ultimate story of the basic Frank Capra philosophy – that everyone is important, that everything counts. This has always been seen as a sentimental and sappy outlook on life, at least as Capra tells it, but the ultimate story is one of gratitude for the precious gift of life. What makes it work are several key elements that anchor it firmly in reality, even as it turns into a fairy tale.
From 63 years on, the most striking aspect of this film is probably why it didn’t catch on in its day. Filmed just after World War II, it documents the sacrifices of one generation that didn’t have things go the way they hoped. Both Capra and Jimmy Stewart were fresh out of the Army when it was made, Stewart having served in combat and rising to the rank of Colonel in the Air Corps. They’d seen a lot, and given happily. The sacrifices that George Bailey made, however, were on the home front, not in battle. Capra wanted to make sure that his audience knew how grateful he was for it. It’s a story of a small town and small joys that seems especially quaint today.
There’s a lot more to it than that, however. Sacrifice by adults is what makes Christmas possible for kids, even though we don’t know it. George Bailey goes from the big dreams of a kid to the obligations of adulthood until they weigh heavily on him, only to bring it full circle with the Christmas “miracle” of everyone in town pitching in to save him. It makes it all worthwhile.
Most important of all is the sense of personal connection that makes “It’s a Wonderful Life” a modern work, even through all the sentimental tear-jerking. There’s a connection made from the fantastic realization of obligation from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to the personalized trippiness we would later see in “The Twilight Zone”. In a world where people do seem to think that it’s all about them, this movie stands somewhere inbetween, a sense of balance that is an individualized higher calling. It’s also just a matter of doing what is right.
It’s also very natural to be depressed at this time of year. Have all the sacrifices that define adulthood actually been worth it? What happened to the dreams of “shaking off the dust of this crummy town”? In all the rush there’s often not enough time to put it into the right perspective until it bubbles up in nasty, negative ways. Capra does his best to help us make sense of it, which is often an artist’s highest calling.
Today, however, everything just stops. We have lots of time to make sense of things, if we want to use it. Generations long since felt sort of the way we all do even if the setting was smaller and more personal. If you look out over the ridges of freshly plowed snow on this Saint Paul holiday morning it’s not all that hard to see it. I hope we all have the time to see how this all comes around, either in the snow outside or the rich black and white of Capra’s vision. Merry Christmas, everyone.