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Praising 'Life': It really is wonderful Tribute: How one black-and-white flick danced its way into a despairing man's mind and made him realize he, too, could go on. Or something like that.


True story: In the early '70s, this newspaper's most incompetent copyreader was in career trouble. It seemed his employers expected him to spell words correctly, even the hard ones, like sheriff and caricature. He also wanted to write, but in the phrase of Peter De Vries, hated the paperwork. His prospects in either endeavor were limited.

Add the fact that it was Christmas Eve, the mega-depressive spoonful-of-arsenic night of the year. Add the fact that he had been so busy thinking about his own problems that it suddenly dawned on him he had not bothered to buy his poor, hard-working wife a Christmas present.

This was one sorry, sour, moping lad, let me tell you, pickling in the brine of his own self-loathing. So he's sitting there on Xmas Eve all by his lonely, and feeling SOOOOOOOOOOOO sorry for himself he can hardly stand it.

Was he suicidal? No way. But he sure wasn't having any fun.

He's watching the tube and drinking something intensely alcoholic, flicking through the channels, and suddenly upon this midnight clear he encounters a black-and-white tapestry of grief, despair, the corruptibility of man, a fable that illustrates the danger of self-hatred and offers a final celebration of community and family that moved him as much as anything he'd ever seen on a screen. It rescued him, if only from the doldrums and a continued visit from that night's demons, but the happiness it brought felt as genuine to him as any in his life. That's the healing power of a great story. He had to wait until the credits to find out what this miracle was called, and then learned it was some obscure thing going about under the cornball title "It's a Wonderful Life." He's loved it ever since.

As I said, a true story. Not an interesting one, but a true one.

Thus it is in the spirit of celebration that a film critic who was once a very bad copyreader gets to pen a tribute to the 1946 film that, after a mediocre reception in that year and decades after decades of obscurity, has emerged in the past 15 years to become an authentic cult item as well as a holiday staple. I tell the story to stress a point about the movie that must be made up front: It's much better when it catches you unexpectedly, when, like an unexpected gift, it creeps across your consciousness unburdened by reputation or the professional treacle of the season, and your mind, eyes and synapses are all open.

Alas, that is no longer possible. Because it was out of copyright for many years, TV stations could show it without paying anyone; its lustrous black and white could even be colorized to appeal to today's kids. It was everywhere, all day long, and, as a consequence, many people grew to hate it as much as those of us who encountered it in its pure state have grown to love it.

It can be annoying. Forced joy is nobody's cup of tea. It's too long. It's an angel movie, for crying out loud. God and Joseph sound like the CEO and Executive VP for a small manufacturing concern in Omaha and look like neon facial blemishes. It's sexist and racist; some of the meet-cute stuff between stars Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed feels as ancient as Egypt and the rich guy who goes about saying "Hee-haw" all the time deserves a punch in the snout. And then there's that awful song, "Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight, come out tonight ..." Arrrrrgh!

Yet at the same time the film remains one of the most persistently engaging and professionally well-crafted movies of American history and to see it in an uninterrupted, restored version on the huge screen at the Senator is about as close as one can come to re-creating its original purity. As they say: Feel the power.

For those who don't know it, the movie follows the worst day in George Bailey's life, as he's about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. The bitter inheritor of his father's idealism, he's spent his life in a small city running a savings and loan association, which gives working men a chance at home ownership, incurring the wrath of the town's grasping capitalist, played by Lionel Barrymore in a magnificent portrait of misanthropy. On the day of the story -- the first hour of the film merely if charmingly sums up George's life as he watches his brother and friends escape to bigger, better lives -- his uncle and business partner misplaces a bank deposit, threatening to bring ruination to Bailey. He yields to despair and demands of God the unthinkable: not that he die, but that he never have been born. God obliges by sending a disassociative angel who bumbles eventually into showing George the world without his presence.

It's one of the great modernist sequences, easily the equal in power to Munch's screamer on the bridge or Bellow's Herzog in Grand Central Station or Heller's Yossarian lost in the Eternal City. George sees an America given in to its appetites, an America that knows no pause between conceiving something and having it, that celebrates the impulsive and the liberated, that celebrates, in other words, the self over everything.

Well, actually what he sees is burlesque, jive, neon and honky-tonk, pale in '90s America, but you can feel the symbolic intent even half a century later. Whatever, it's scary as hell, a dark, sexually driven, cheap, ruined, landscape of unfettered hunger and soullessness.

George learns his lesson: In his smallest of ways, he has mattered and he begs forgiveness for his blasphemy. In return, through Clarence, God grants him mercy. Back in the real Bedford Falls, his friends rally.

As George Bailey, it's Stewart who carries the film. It's been pointed out before but worth recalling that it took Capra to see the darkness in Stewart, and this film was really the beginning of his mature career, as directors as diverse as Hitchcock and Anthony Mann would soon discover. Just back from World War II where he was a valiant and highly decorated bomber pilot, he was still cute and gangly, still All-American, still boyish and appealing, but he had a gravity to him the war brought out, a sense from life that things could and would go wrong, where the Hollywood myth was they never did. (Ironic, then, that his first film after the war was this one, where almost nothing went wrong!)

What's amazing about Stewart's George is how far the star is willing to go -- and that's all the way. George surrenders to the festering ugliness of his soul, his bitterness, his sense of recrimination and self-hatred: he turns into, at one point, a complete monster, cruel to his wife and children, hostile to the world in general, a man so angry he could be Ahab up there on the quarter deck, fuming at nature's indifference.

In the movie, you feel a continual struggle between angels of darkness and light: not in the treacly manipulative way of gimmick movies, but of real life, particularly as submerged in a single soul. For George's victory really isn't over mean old Mr. Potter or capitalism or the possibility of vulgarity in American small towns, but over himself. The real villain in the film is his own bitterness, his own sense of self-hatred and failure. No man, the angel tells him, is a failure who has friends, but that's bogus and really isn't what the movie is about. The real thrust of "It's a Wonderful Life" is to suggest that no man is a failure who has a friend in himself.

Pub Date: 12/09/96

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