In Fact, It Is A Wonderful Life

[Originally published 12/2/2008]

I doubt I'm anyone's idea of a starry-eyed romantic, but I take issue with Wendell Jamieson's facile perspective on Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.

From Jamieson's viewpoint, this classic film "is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams." He feels it's "a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away." He also thinks that the vice-ridden, alternate reality of Pottersville depicted in the film "looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls—the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night."

It's easy to be glib about values that you don't share, a culture for which you don't care. For some, so long as things are glossy on the surface, everything's okay. Until it's not. Then those same folks are often first in line to loudly lament where it all went wrong.

It's simple to say that life appears to be more fun in flashy Pottersville than in drowsy Bedford Falls. As with many things, it helps to see what you're looking for rather than what you're looking at. Years ago, I went to Atlantic City for the first and only time. Things looked glittery when I was on the Boardwalk at the casinos; a block away from the glitz, on a dreary side street, I saw a man take a half-empty bottle of beer from a sidewalk trash can and drink from it. That's life, beneath the shiny surface.

The point is also made, by commenters responding to Jamieson's article, that Mary's fate in the George-less world of Pottersville was hardly horrible, that she was educated and had a career. Which is all to the good, provided you don't bother looking beyond appearances (which is the same problem with the Pottersville-looks-like-more-fun theory). It is to forget that Mary's dream all along had been to make a life with George. (She says as much on their wedding night, after cobbling together a honeymoon for them in an abandoned house: "Remember when we threw rocks at this old house? This is what I wished for.") How ironic, then, that those who lament George's "lost dreams" fail to recognize the loss of Mary's own dreams in George's absence. It also speaks volumes about the values of these readers, this idea that an education and a career are enough to make a complete life. The failure to notice the futile, unhappy nature of being a librarian in a town where clearly no one reads is also quite telling.

It's a Wonderful Life shows that our existence isn't all about what's on the surface. Life is often messy. Life requires compromise. It can uplift you and depress you—often simultaneously. You can, for instance, be happy for your brother's marriage to "a peach" while at the same time resenting its impact on your own future.

This film is about growing up; it isn't, however, about giving up your dreams. It's about realizing that what you think you want and what is actually important to you are often very different things. It's a recognition that love, and family, and friendship mean more in the end than naked ambition. It's about community in the truest sense of the word. It's about being somebody, being a leader, being an influence and a force for good in your world—even when you don't realize you're doing it. It's about facing the idea that your actions, on a daily basis, do make a difference. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."

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