Brian’s Exploratory Christmas Endeavor ’19: It’s a Wonderful Life

I spoke about this movie on, I believe, the first Christmas special episode of the podcast we ever did, and I was enthusiastic about it at the time. I’ve only become more fond of it since then. Why bring it up now?

There’s a 4K release now.

I was reading into all this 4K business, and whether one should bother. It turns out, one should. According to The Digital Bits:

For this Ultra HD presentation, the image was scanned in 4K from the original camera negative, 13 of 15 reels of which survive in good condition (though deterioration had begun to occur near the ends of reels, making this a critical restoration for preserving the film). For reels and scenes where the OCN had degraded too badly or no longer survives, two second-generation nitrate fine-grain prints (made at the time the film was completed) were used to fill in those gaps. The image was then digitally restored as needed and given a restrained high dynamic range grade (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are available). The resulting presentation is simply stunning. In fact, it would be fair to say that people who attended the film’s original theatrical screenings didn’t experience an image this good.

That was all I needed to hear to look into a Christmas favorite early in the season. And I own it on Blu-Ray.

Reviews of this version go on to point out the puzzling inclusion of the colorized version of the film on a standard Blu-Ray disc, rather than a Blu-Ray copy of of the black-and-white version (which included the good extras, by the by). I’m not worried about this so much, as I own the Blu-Ray collection with both discs, but it does make a body wonder. (No it doesn’t, they were just being lazy).

But what is left to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said, and by better-experienced, more articulate people than myself? Roger Ebert’s review is a good one. I guess all I have to offer is my personal experience, which, at the end of the day, is all an honest person can admit they have to offer (besides encyclopedic knowledge, or a degree, or some overrated stuff like that).

It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie which becomes somehow clearer, somehow more relevant to me every year that I watch it. Perhaps I’m lucky not to have grown up with Frank Capra’s classic. As a friend was just telling me on Facebook, about this very movie, after a lifetime of exposure, a film can really lose its luster.

Some of the reason I love it more every time is because I am a marginally wiser and more thoughtful movie viewer every year that I watch it. Part of it is because I am growing older and have more to think about. And really, that’s the big thing. The growing older bit.

The longer my life goes on, the more I can relate to James Stewart’s George Bailey. That’s how this sometimes schmaltzy, dearly sincere, made-to-be-disposable, once-forgotten, public domain movie brought me to tears this year.

As Roger Ebert points out in his review, It’s A Wonderful Life is sort of A Christmas Carol in reverse. Its hero plunges into despair, he writes, rather than a villain coming to his senses after being exposed to scenes of happiness. This year, more than any yet, I felt completely absorbed in every step of George Bailey’s journey from optimism to the very pits of despair, and back again. And that, for a number of reasons, is what It’s A Wonderful Life does so well. The beating heart of this movie is its ability to convincingly destroy its main character, only to show him that even at the bottom of everything, life is still precious…and to then raise him back up high, on the shoulders of hope.

George Bailey, played wonderfully as a child by Robert J. Anderson, is shown as an ordinary, all-American kid, and one who does the right thing every time he is called to, from saving his kid brother from a watery death, to saving the drugist Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a customer while in a state of confusion and anguish over the news of his son’s death in The War. But one thing the movie lays out immediately, and follows up on before it can leave our subconscious is George Bailey as a boy (later man) full of hope. He marches into Gower’s drug store and wishes for a million dollars, before slapping the button which activates a cigar lighter, and seeing it ignite shouts, “hot dog!” He does this again when the movie fast forward’s to George as a wrinkled, middle-aged high school student.

George Bailey isn’t just a cheese-ball sap, however, led around by his dreamy optimism. Indeed, his hopes are high; he plans to travel the world after school, to get as far away from his home town as possible, and explore, experiencing everything life has to offer. He was going to have his own harem!

But reality always manages to ask George a tough question: what matters? Would you do the right thing? Would you set yourself aside for The Right Thing?

Doing the Right Thing costs George Bailey the hearing in one ear, but saves his brother. It gets him beaten by Mr. Gower, but saves a life, and keeps Gower from the prison sentence which befalls in him a timeline where that accidental murder occurs. It keeps George in town after high school, working at his father’s Savings and Loan, a business he wants nothing to do with. It keeps him at the Savings and Loan when his father dies, because the Savings and Loan is the last bulwark against Mr. Potter, the capitalist slumlord and virtual king of Bedford Falls.

Doing The Right Thing leads Bailey, after one last fit, one last declaration of rebellion against small towns and small lives, to pause, and accept the love of a good, wonderful woman (played by the incomparable Donna Reed), and settle down. Doing The Right Thing settles Bailey in a home that is literally broken, but which gradually, through the tenacity of love and optimism, becomes splendid and wholesome. Doing The Right Thing gets Bailey four more mouths to feed, and on only a modest income at the Savings and Loan he could never separate himself from. Meanwhile, his brother has made it big, and becomes a war hero to boot.

And when Bailey’s uncle loses the Savings and Loan deposit, for $8,000 (about $109,000 in 2017 dollars), a lifetime of putting aside his hopes and dreams for The Right Thing finally comes to kill George Bailey.

The famous popular culture references to this film all have to do with this 10-20 minute stretch where Bailey enters an alternate reality wherein he’d never been born. And it’s a fine enough part of the movie, but it’s not my favorite, or to me even the most important. It moves the plot forward, and it’s a lot of fun, with Henry Travers doing a great, funny job as Clarence the angel. But to me, it’s just a means to an end. George Bailey being shown through fantasy elements that life is worth living isn’t especially meaningful for me.

Rather, when he returns, ecstatic just to be alive, embracing his ill fortune and being glad just to be, that’s when the movie begins to pick up spirits for me. Besides the simplicity of that very scene, something older movies were unapologetic about, and newer movies are bashful to attempt, what begins here is to me the greatest, most old-timey-movie thing of all:

The villain, the capitalist, loses, not because anyone takes away his power, but somewhat as in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the townspeople show that doing The Right Thing truly is right, and has its rewards, and can save not only the man George Bailey, but their own souls and the town along with them.

2019 is the year the whole world is finally beginning to talk about billionaires in a critical way. As we look around us and see failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, jobs that don’t pay enough to live, for-profit prisons, and the rise of the American SS separating children from their parents, probably for life and tricking immigrants into being arrested for deportation, we are all sitting back and wondering what this country might look like, and how its people might behave, if the last fifty years had not been an economic race to see how quickly we could put every last dollar we have into the hands of as few people as possible.

Moreover, 2019, for me, is a year of emotional turmoil and exhaustion. I’ve been back to college for several years now, only now wrapping up my 2-year degree at the age of 32, and planning my next agonizing stretch toward a career that, according to every study, every news article, and every beaten professional scampering away from it to try their hand at literally anything else, is a bad life decision. And while I’m not the saint George Bailey is, and most of my falling behind in life has been due to my own self-defeating ways, I can still relate to the one-time dream of leaving this town and traveling abroad and living an exciting life and being the most I could be…and seeing it all wither on the vine.

And not to throw myself too grand a pity party, but unlike Bailey, I don’t have a loving wife, a mostly satisfactory job, or any beautiful kids to show for my disappointment. I’ve got a gaming computer that I recently upgraded on credit cards. I’ve got online dating profiles and matches that ghost me. I’ve got two $550 paychecks per month. I’ve got $44,000 in incoming student debt for a university education that will get me a stressful career which pays worse than nearly any other. I’ve got Duolingo and the laboring delusion that it’s not too late to travel abroad someday.

I don’t need you or anybody to feel bad for me. I just need it to be understood that on a number of levels I relate to the character of George Bailey.

And in the end, George Bailey turns out okay. And maybe that’s what made me cry when I watched the film last night. That, or the wine.

I had made a list of notes while watching the film, of things I’d like to write about it. How cute are the special effects. How funny is the writing. The little bits of hokiness that I find endearing. The choppier bits of editing we were never supposed to notice, which I can overlook.

But I guess that’s not what really matters. Not to me. Not this year, anyway.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a beautiful movie, literally and figuratively, and its 4K restoration is superb. The film, if you can just forgive the idiosyncrasies common to movies of its age, holds up today, and is an important piece of our national popular cultural heritage.

One can and should criticize productions like The Waltons or Leave It to Beaver for their portrayal of a friendly, tight-knit, (upsettingly whites-only) version of America for which many are nostalgic, but which never really existed. But this movie (setting aside its 1946 lack of diversity), I think, paints a picture of an imagined America that was so communal, you really want to buy and believe in it. It creates a picture of social unity that you want to be a part of. It creates a staggering contrast with the hateful, ugly world we see on the news, and makes you believe, if only for two hours, that it could really be, if we all just wanted it badly enough. It acknowledges the ugliest tendencies of the people running this world, this country, and says, “they don’t always win because most people are good.”

It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t just a 5-star Christmas film. It is a 5-star film. It is a treasure. I am convinced I will never change my mind about that. I love it more every time I watch it. And if you never have, or if it’s been a while, I encourage you give it a look. It might offer you something new (and old) to believe in.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

2 thoughts on “Brian’s Exploratory Christmas Endeavor ’19: It’s a Wonderful Life

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