To many Americans, the season wouldn't be complete without at least a few scenes from "It's a Wonderful Life." The movie wasn't a box-office hit when it was released in the 1940s, but it's become a seasonal favorite since - and even acquired some critical acclaim along the way.
Years ago I read a brief analysis of "It's a Wonderful Life" by a professor of American studies at Boston University. I should have known better. Any academic field with the word "studies" in its name is suspect from the start - as opposed to a traditional discipline like history or literature. Naturally the professor's take on the movie was suspect, too. To him, it showed only that, while life can be "an enriching Norman Rockwell experience, it also can be smothering, where you end up marrying the girl you went to high school with, and you never get to go to Europe. ... It tells us George is one of the most sad and lonely and tragic characters ever imagined. I cry when I see it."
That may be about the only thing the professor and I have in common. I've shed a few tears myself watching "It's a Wonderful Life" over the years. But not for the same reason as the professor. To me, nothing in the movie seems as sad as his analysis of it. The movie makes marrying your high school sweetheart seem any number of things, including comedy, delight, education, vexation and fulfillment - they all come with married life - but tragedy? No. Frank Capra's tearjerker is a celebration of the ordinary middle-class virtues, which are not nearly ordinary enough in these oh-so-advanced times.
George Bailey a tragic figure? Come on. Why, he's the richest man in town, as his brother says at the melodramatic climax of the movie. He makes Mr. Potter, the stock plutocrat in the story, look like a pauper. That's because George Bailey has loved and sacrificed and built and given and stood alone a time or two. That is, he has lived. He has not gone through life as a tourist.
As for the idea that not getting to Europe is a tragedy, that notion would have much amused my immigrant mother. I can see her wry smile now. Which turned steely whenever she heard anybody say a bad word about America. You could almost see her thinking: Who knows America who knows only America? To her, the tragedy would have been not making it to America.
To me, the movie's message is that George Bailey's life has not been sad or lonely, let alone tragic. Even if George himself, played with all-American earnestness by Jimmy Stewart, thinks so at his lowest, most self-pitying, self-absorbed ebb.
Can the professor have been making the common mistake of using "tragic" as just a synonym for sad? Only a richly blessed people would confuse everything from a fender-bender to going broke with a tragedy. This is the land of second chances, not to say third and fourth. I know.
On these shores, tragedy in its original, legitimate, classical Greek sense - that is, the inevitable fall of a noble character because of a fatal flaw, usually hubris - has an artificial air about it. While in Europe, where the concept of tragedy originated, it seems to come naturally.
If there is a moral to Frank Capra's movie, it may be the comment from Clarence, George's bumbling guardian angel: "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole to fill, doesn't he? ... You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?"
There's a lot more Eugene Field in that comment than Sophocles. The values of Bedford Falls are those our professional intellectuals are almost obliged to see through. Sometimes they're so busy seeing through them that they don't see them at all. Which is what George Bailey did - till his eyes are opened and the Happy Ending ensues.
Equally undiscerning are those who would idealize small towns; they don't see the potential Pottersville inside every Bedford Falls. Just one man, like George Bailey, can make all the difference. Think of all those who make a difference in your town, your neighborhood, your life - and all those who don't.
The most unsettling aspect of the popularity of "It's a Wonderful Life" is the realization that nostalgia for certain values tends to set in just as they're disappearing. Happily, nostalgia can bring those values back, too. We're free. We're Americans. We can choose how we live. With cheer and faith or bad temper and worst behavior.
If the professor's view of George Bailey as a tragic figure struck me as sadder than anything in the movie, at least it wasn't tragic.
It was more comic, this being America.
Paul Greenberg is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The original version of this column appeared in 1989.
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