“It’s A Wonderful Life”

Like a lot of folks, I spent part of Christmas watching Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and came away with 3 thoughts:

First, George Bailey’s two best friends are Bert and Ernie. I’m told that these characters, or at least their names, inspired the makers of “Sesame Street” to create their namesakes. (I’ll watch next year to see if George has another friend named Elmo.)

Second, during a dinner conversation at the Bailey home early in the film, George’s maid, a black woman, offers an unsolicited opinion on how George should spend his evening. George (Jimmy Stewart) responds by saying, “Well, Doris, why don’t you just pull up a chair (and join us at the dinner table.)” This line may have gotten a laugh in 1946 when the movie was made, but it’s jarring today. (What would make anyone think that a domestic, and a black woman at that, might actually have something worthwhile to offer?) Even heroic characters like George Bailey are trapped in the context of their culture, and that dinner conversation leaves me wondering whom we may be marginalizing today.

Finally, during the dream sequence, when Clarence, the angel, shows George what life would have been like had he never lived, we see a thoroughly unpleasant world. George’s brother, Harry, would have died because George wouldn’t have saved him from drowning as child. The platoon that Harry saved would have perished as well, and Mary, George’s wife, would have lived out her life as an “old maid” in the library. (There’s that context thing again!)

As a disgusted George runs through “Potterville,” we see that the Bedford Falls Theatre, which had been playing “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” has been replaced by cocktail lounges featuring exotic dancers. Earlier this year, we marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in the midst of that original celebration back in ‘89, I remember thinking that Pope John Paul 2 was something of a killjoy when he warned us all about the dangers of excessive materialism.

In hindsight, maybe the bishop from Poland was right. There are very few places like Bedford Falls today. I can’t remember the last time I saw anything like “The Bells of St. Mary’s” featured in a theatre, and I wonder what George Bailey would have thought of “Real Housewives of New Jersey”?


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