Bailey's Blues

Which seemed appropriate, because there's a sense in which it wasn't completed until the 1980s--the audience it needed to make sense of its underlying darkness didn't exist until then. This isn't to say that it was a work of vision, or that its maker, Frank Capra, was in any sense ahead of his time; just that, on this one occasion, he happened to tell a story that got away from him en route to its happy ending. It contained a dimension its own times wouldn't hold, and so it floated out there for years until circumstances conspired to finish it--to give it a shape and clarity that no one saw in it at the time.

It was meant to be a tidy little fable, and, on the surface anyway, it is. You know the story and its hero: George Bailey, a small-time, small-town businessman who dreams of building skyscrapers and traveling the world but spends his life running a savings and loan that specializes in building modest houses for working people. He undergoes a crisis; it all works out in the end. This much is pure Capra, but there's something else gnawing at the story almost from the beginning. Bailey wants out; he doesn't like the town or the life it's imposed on him. For Capra this is mere prelude to the predictably happy outcome, but the simple fact is that George Bailey's restless dread has more power than anything else in the movie's first hour and a half. In the hands of Stewart, an actor with anxieties of his own--he had gone off to war five years earlier a star by virtue of a young man's roles, and now came home to uncertain prospects--the character up and takes the movie away from Capra.

It's entertaining to see, one of those little surprises that unsurprising movies sometimes afford; it doesn't explain how It's a Wonderful Life became a hit 40 years after the fact. The last half hour gets to that. Falsely accused of scandal, Bailey falls into a suicidal despair, convinced that he's given his life to a job he hates and gotten nothing but trouble in return. He feels hopeless. Wishes he was dead. At that point he's visited by an angel (more corn, in the person of Henry Travers) who shows him what his town would have been like if he'd never lived. That other town is all juke joints and gambling dens, and the tract where he built his houses is a cemetery instead. In the end he repents of his death wish and goes back to face censure and prison, only to find the town rallied round him. Even by the standards of Hollywood melodrama, the whole thing must have seemed impossibly overwrought in 1946.

By 1986, somehow, it didn't. By then It's a Wonderful Life was telling two different stories; which one you saw depended on which one you wanted to see. If the movie was on one level a ready-made parable for the official version of the times, a story of voluntarism and the ultimate benevolence of the market that Reagan himself could have made up, it had a flipside that no one has talked about much to this day. George Bailey's terror, his fear that his life had consisted of wasted dreams and wasted motion, had an entirely new kind of resonance in a country where "Morning in America" was the headline and those who weren't part of it vanished beneath radar. Down there, where life was increasingly defined by plant closings and the promise of continual downsizing, by boarded-up business districts and streets grown more aimless and mean, people knew how George Bailey felt in a way that few onlookers in 1946 could have fathomed: They knew what it was like to feel yourself cut loose and falling, and to believe that nothing and no one would catch you.

All this gave the movie a charge it didn't possess, hadn't earned, when it was made. The 1980s turned it from a harmless, sentimental little story into a kind of prayer. It wasn't a matter of George Bailey's own cheery fate so much as the terms on which it played out: the affirmation that love and work were not in vain, that one could touch the life of the society around oneself and be sustained by that society in turn. The opposite, that is, of the society that we now labor to build, in which citizenship is defined solely in terms of watching out for yourself. In that regard it's interesting to see what the years have done to Lionel Barrymore's Mr. Potter ("the richest, meanest man in town," says the narrator); the speeches about fiscal responsibility and the undeserving poor that were meant to paint him as a comic villain in 1946 would no doubt get him elected to Congress today. CP

It's a Wonderful Life is playing at the Oak Street Cinema this Friday and Saturday; see Movie Clock for times.

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