First of all, the title is bunk.
For George Bailey, the beleaguered Everyman portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), it’s not such a wonderful life. That’s actually a big part of what makes it a wonderful film, albeit a frequently misunderstood and underestimated one.
We’re now in the season when there’s no escaping a movie that is insistently described as a “holiday classic.” Indeed, for decades it’s seemed like the Yuletide only became official when “It’s a Wonderful Life” arrived on our TV screens or in our theaters (it’s screening at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre on Dec. 17).
This month its ubiquity is enhanced by hoopla around the film’s 75th anniversary, complete with the release of a new, two-disc Blu-ray set of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” billed in a Paramount Pictures release as “beloved,” “inspiring,” “uplifting,” and “life-affirming.”
Those are the kind of adjectives routinely affixed to Capra’s film. But the real greatness of “It’s a Wonderful Life” lies in its darkness. Much — most — of the film is a portrait of a thwarted man who tries to live his life with integrity but is driven first to frustration, then to the very bottom of despair. That portrait is coupled with a view of human nature that is far from reassuring.
I don’t know whether Capra fully got that, but Stewart clearly did. In the lighter scenes, he falls back on his familiar aw-shucks mannerisms, but when Stewart tunnels into George’s desperation, it is with a truthfulness both raw and fearless.
Many viewers have preferred to look away from the shadows in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” focusing instead on the not-terribly-convincing burst of sunshine that floods across the screen at the end.
You know the scene I’m talking about: In a deus ex machina resolution that would have made the dramatists of ancient Greece blush, the citizens of Bedford Falls rush to George’s financial rescue, his brother proclaims him “the richest man in town,” everybody sings “Auld Lang Syne,” and little Zuzu caps it all off by chirping that “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
And every time a cash register rings, a corporation gets its cut. You can purchase “It’s a Wonderful Life”-themed products that range from Christmas tree ornaments in the shape of a bell to an “Official Bailey Family Cookbook” to wall calendars to quilt blankets adorned with scenes and quotes from the film. NBC is airing the movie twice this month, including on Christmas Eve, and it’s streaming on multiple platforms. There’s a virtual industry built around a determinedly rosy reading of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
But consider the events that precede the film’s there’s-no-place-like-home finale, both in George’s actual life and in the counterfactual “If George had never existed” scenario.
In the former, George’s dreams of adventure and exploration are systematically dashed. As a young man, he tells his future wife, Mary (Donna Reed), “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!” But George eventually tosses aside the travel brochures that he’s been clutching like a talisman of hope.
George doesn’t get to go to college, either, and even his honeymoon with Mary is short-circuited by a run on his building & loan. It’s worth noting that until he talks them out of it, quite a few of his customers seem all too ready to desert a man and an institution that have made it possible for them to own homes.
Later, when Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) commits a careless act that could put the building & loan out of business and land George in prison for fraud, George grabs him by the lapels, yanks him to his feet, and hisses: “Where’s that money, you silly, stupid old fool?” Upon his return home, George vents his fury at Mary and their children, snarling “You call this a happy family — Why do we have to have all these kids?” and kicking over a table.
In both scenes, Stewart makes it clear that George’s stunted life, as much as the bank crisis and the prospect of prison, is at the root of his despair.
Soon George is stumbling through the streets of Bedford Falls, lip bloodied, hair matted with sweat, a life-insurance policy for $15,000 in his pocket. Hard-hearted Mr. Potter (a gloriously malignant Lionel Barrymore) taunts George that: “You’re worth more dead than alive.”
It’s a line that prefigures a similar one from “Death of a Salesman,” another work about a desperate American Everyman, which would premiere on Broadway three years after the release of “Wonderful Life.” In Arthur Miller’s play, a beaten-down Willy Loman says: “Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
On the verge of suicide, George gets to see what the world would be like if he had never been born, courtesy of his cloying seraphic guide, Clarence (Henry Travers). And, hey, it turns out that pretty much everyone George knows is a terrible person!
So he and he alone was all that stood between decency and community and civic-mindedness on the one hand and dog-eat-dog Darwinian cruelty and callousness on the other? That’s one heck of a butterfly effect. But it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the citizens of Bedford Falls — or of humanity.
In the George-never-existed version of life, the denizens of the now-not-so-friendly town tavern roar with laughter when the once-jovial, now short-fused bartender sprays broken-down alcoholic Mr. Gower with a seltzer bottle. George’s gentle, loving mother now runs a boardinghouse and is a figure of pure bile.
Downtown, the townspeople look on stonily as George pleads with them “That’s my wife!” while Mary screams and faints. Bert, the policeman who serenaded George and Mary with “I Love You Truly” beneath their window on their wedding night, is now so trigger-happy that he fires several shots at George down a street that contains pedestrians in harm’s way.
At the end George is restored to his previous existence, and yes, the citizens of Bedford Falls do rally to his side, and yes, he is reconciled with Mary and the kids. But as George gazes skyward and gives a conspiratorial wink to Clarence, there’s no indication that any of his other dreams will be fulfilled.
You can’t help but feel that Clarence has one more job to do, possibly in a sequel to “It’s a Wonderful Life”: to come back down to earth and show George the — possibly even more wonderful? — life he might have led.