What's so wonderful about it?

December 24, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- So why am I spending another holiday season in Bedford Falls rather than, say, Disney World?

How did ''It's a Wonderful Life'' become the ultimate Christmas classic, leaving even Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the shadows?

It's exactly 50 years since George Bailey, small-town banker and self-described failure, first contemplated cinematic suicide on Christmas Eve.

The dark journey through his disappointed dreams doesn't seem like a deck-the-halls sort of flick.

No amount of colorizing could make this a joyful palette until the angel Clarence leads George on a tour of what Bedford Falls would have been like without him. As Jimmy Stewart once said, Frank Capra ''made you pay for the happy endings.''

A half-century ago, the movie was considered too grim for the season. The year 1946 was the first real postwar Christmas in America when there was finally enough chocolate on the shelves and cars on the lots.

Capra's film was rushed into theaters because the utterly forgettable ''Sinbad the Sailor'' was behind schedule.

"Minding . . . Capra-corn"

Many of the reviews were less than boffo. The New Yorker said that it was ''so mincing as to border on baby talk. . . . '' The New York Times described it as a ''figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes.'' Some filed away it under ''Capra-corn.''

Nor did the audiences make it a runaway success.

This celebration of the man who stayed home in his small town played at a time when veterans were loading up the cars and heading for Chicago or L.A. ''How you gonna keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Par-eee?'' asked the song.

Here was a film about the value of small daily struggles in an era of released ambition and surging optimism.

It wasn't until the '70s that the movie became a holiday tradition ++ and the '90s that it became a certified classic that resonates more with our times than with its own.

Jeanine Basinger, who runs the cinema archives at Wesleyan University, has a hunch that the movie fits this season like a mitten because, ''people are evaluating their own lives at Christmas and New Year's.''

She says, ''George Bailey is the guy who wanted more from life, he wanted to get out of town, do exciting things. Instead he has what a lot of us have at holidays, a job, a family, a house that's falling apart.''

America's journey

Michael Medved, a cultural critic, thinks it fits our era because America has gone through the same tour that George took with Clarence.

''We've seen an alternative universe,'' he says, ''seen what blight and hopelessness look like and now want to come home to Bedford Falls.''

At the risk of adding to the gloom, my own sense as a recidivist viewer is that the tale of George Bailey is actually a midlife movie.

One of great American themes is about the disappointed dreamer, the Great Gatsbys and Stanley Kowalskis, the folks who could have been contenders.

But at some level, everyone -- those who followed their dreams and those who did not -- arrives at midlife, looks around and sees limits.

A generation at midlife

In the '90s, a whole generation has hit midlife by any actuarial table. And so has the country. The American Dream that started out as Horatio Alger looks more like George Bailey.

The possibilities of this country once seemed as limitless as an unopened gift box. But today we talk more about stewardship than starting fresh. If there's a word that comes up with middle-aged persistence now, it's responsibility.

What Capra does in his wonderful life is to make responsibility seem heroic rather than dull.

Do the emotional seams show in this movie? Of course. The film noir sequence when the banker-hero sees Bedford Falls as an X-rated Pottersville, is a touch campy for my modern eyes. Would Donna Reed's Mary truly have become an old-maid librarian but for the grace of George?

A missing person

As for the notion that a missing person ''leaves an awful hole,'' in Clarence's phrase? Is it too skeptical for the season to ask how wide a hole? For how long? It takes an angel, albeit ''second class,'' to convince George that his life mattered.

But this is a movie, not an existential play.

It's Capra's intention to find meaning in midlife. He caps the long night of Bailey's soul with the happy ending of a full-tilt town love fest that has since tapped a half-century of good feelings.

The bad guy of Bedford Falls doesn't get his comeuppance. The good guy will have next year's creditors to meet and kids to raise. He may never slough off his yearning or his doubts.

But in this era when superheroes are killing-machines, those of us who also yearn and face limits go back and back again to see George Bailey create a decent life. Who can fault a movie that calls such a life wonderful?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/24/96

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