Life throws us its share of curves, but Word on Fire blog contributor Ellyn von Huben contends its still wonderful. Today she explores the emotional universality of a classic Christmas film and the connections we make when experiencing it together.
The other evening, we took a break from the ongoing debate over when to put up the Christmas tree to plunk down and watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on TV. Though we own the DVD, I like to watch it when it is on broadcast television. The days of Advent are one of the times when I like the feeling of a shared cultural (though not altogether religious) experience with my fellow man, namely “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “White Christmas,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life. ”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” endures as one of the best Christmas movies. Sweet but not saccharine. As wingless angel Clarence said (and for this movie I willfully suspend my disbelief in the faithful departed becoming angels), “I like George Bailey.” George is a good man, tinged with sadness beneath the affable surface. One of my favorite lines: “You call this a happy family? What did we have all these kids for anyway?” (Some year I shall find a way to use that on a Christmas card in a way that my children won’t misunderstand and that won’t depress the recipients. George – and I – know the answer. But there is something cathartic about expressing the moment of doubt.)
Every time I watch, I notice something new. It was only recently that I noticed the prefigurement of old, embittered Mrs. Bailey running a boarding house when George exclaims about his last meal at the “ol’ Bailey boarding house.” There is subtle unspoken commentary on the way Catholics were regarded at the time, immigrant “garlic eaters” with sooo many children and maybe even a goat. And there is the simple scene of George and Mary sharing a phone that has more erotic wallop than the most explicit films of today. I’m still impressed with the economy with which a cast of characters is fleshed out. For instance, look at the ease with which Violet’s “loose” character was drawn from the very beginning:
Violet: I like him.
Mary: You like every boy.
Violet: What’s wrong with that?
Sam Wainwright, Violet, Mr. Gower - all minor players yet integral and worthy of examination. I feel closer to George than to any of the other characters. (well, OK, also Ma Bailey - I do seem to be running a boarding house.) I may not have achieved George’s unfailing moral goodness, but what I really identify with is his look of a man trapped by making the right choices, when he would rather be pursuing his dreams. I can relate to that. There is a tinge of bitterness to George that makes him appealing. Some people miss that and only see a syrupy story.
We always have a good laugh when Mary, in a world without George, was an old-maid and a LIBRARIAN, which Clarence announces with the same tone of horror as if he had said "crack whore." We are a very "pro-book" group (including one family member who does possess a Master of Library and Information Science degree - that’s what a spinster Mary Hatch would be today) and do not see it as the lowest fate that to which a woman could be condemned.
I read somewhere that the final scene originally had Uncle Billy falling to his knees and reciting the Our Father, joined by the rest of the crowd in the Bailey house. This was eliminated, one of the reasons being that British censors would not allow the "Lord's Prayer" in any movie. The words “jerk” and “impotent” were also unacceptable. And Heaven was to be substituted for God. Those were the days. Rigid regulation of dialogue abounded and the movie was the better for it. (I mean, would George's despairing rage at Uncle Billy have been more powerful if it had been laced with our pervasive, 2011-style f-word profanity?)
This year I feel an extra tug at my heart when Zuzu and her petals appear. The Washington Post recently had an interview with Karolyn Grimes who played George and Mary’s 6 year old daughter, Zuzu.
“ ‘My life has never been wonderful, she offered quietly. “Maybe when I was a child, but not after age 15.’ “ Well, that comes as something of a slap in the face. I like to assume that everyone lives happily ever after. There is no happily ever after to be found in Grimes’ story. But she does go on to share a deep spiritual truth that is the key to the movie’s fascination for so many: “And maybe that’s what makes the film so important for me and a lot of other people, she continued. ‘The Jimmy Stewart George is suffering terribly in the movie - you can just see it. He’s in Martini’s cafe and saying to himself, “God, I’m not a praying man, but please show me the way.’”
This is not a sentimental movie. Unlike so many emo-centric pieces of entertainment, this movie shows a man who has feelings and doesn’t necessarily act on them. I see a certain melancholy bitterness in his character - where some people only see a chump. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a bittersweet reassurance, with just enough Christmas schmaltz, for all the George Baileys of the world—"born older"—who do the right thing, do not follow their bliss and make the world a better place for their being in it.
It is a wonderful life. Life is wonderful. But it is not perfect. Certainly not without anguish. When we ask our Blessed Mother to pray for us with "our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears," that’s not poetic hyperbole. But life itself is still wonderful, even in those simple moments when the best we can do for quality family time is to sit around and watch an old movie with the rest of the world.
Ellyn vonHuben is a regular contributor to the Word on Fire blog.