Friday, December 19, 2008

An Ode to George Bailey

There's a wonderfully sentimental yet somewhat snarky ode to one of my favorite films of all time, It's a Wonderful Life, in the New York Times today.

What I love about this piece by Wendell Jamieson is that many of the reasons he says he's a fan of this movie are similar to mine, like the fact that Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey character is an anti-hero, a flawed, sometimes mean and dispirited soul who feels as though his life has added up to nothing because he's been nothing but a nice guy, a martyr, to the people he loves.

"My affection for It's a Wonderful Life has never waned, despite the film's overexposure and sugar-sweet marketing, and the rolling eyes of friends and family . . . It's a Wonderful Life is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife."

In the course of writing the story about It's a Wonderful Life, Jamieson contacted an upstate New York district attorney and asked him, if this had really happened, if Uncle Billy had lost the $8,000 and George claimed credit for the error, would George go to prison even if he gave back the money that he got in donations. The answer was, technically, George could go to jail, but the DA said, "He'd be a tough guy to send to jail."

Jamieson also called a professor of urban policy at New York University to ask if Pottersville -- filled with bustling bars and gambling joints -- would've been better off economically than the reserved and quiet Bedford Falls, with its movie house and dying manufacturing base. (The verdict was that gambling money might've been a financial boon in the waning days of American industrial cities.)

But the best part of Jamieson's story was when he called out the character of Harry Bailey as "a slick, self-obsessed jerk, cannily getting out of his responsibility to help with the family business, by marrying a woman whose dad gives him a job." Harry's character has perpetually irked me because he's treated like a good guy and while he openly acknowledges that George was always getting screwed -- being stuck with the Bailey Building and Loan, giving Harry his college money, letting Harry skate away from the business when George wanted to travel -- but selfishly proceeds with his plans anyway because George was too kind to get in his brother's way. The aforementioned rage that George winds up expressing on Christmas Eve when he again shoulders the burden of his family's responsibilities -- and they blithely allow him to do so -- is completely understandable. If you let the whole world walk all over you, you're going to blow your top too. And just because Harry delivers THE tear-jerker line of the film at the end, doesn't, in my mind, excuse his behavior.

My one regret about this movie is that, much like life I suppose, there's no justice in the end for the evil Mr. Potter. He gets to sit atop a pile of ill-gotten gains while George Bailey faces jail time for a crime he never committed. Many years ago, the folks at Saturday Night Live concocted their own version of how Mr. Potter might've been paid back for his treachery. (See link to video here.)

I would've loved to have seen Uncle Billy suddenly remember that he accidentally handed the money to Potter and to have seen the mob go get Potter . . . but only to have Potter taken away in handcuffs, not pummeled in the exaggerated way this video shows. But maybe that's just me, displaying some of my trademark sentimental hogwash.

Image credit: Paramount Pictures/New York Times.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the points you made about "It's a Wonderful Life". On the whole, I really like the movie, but George does allow himself to be manipulated and "walked over" at various points of the film, and it makes him quite resentful of those around him. Harry (whose life was saved by George in childhood) is genuinely selfish and irresponsible as well.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad someone has finally come out with this. This 'feel good' film has irked me for years. I find it depressing. George's entire life is a tragedy...And Mary- she's manipulative and self-serving. She reminds me of one of those women who has been planning her wedding since she was 8 years old. Her main goal in life was to snag a man- any man- to support her. She saddles him with an old house and starts having baby after baby after baby.
I think in an alternate universe Potter is the hero. He takes the money, George spends a short stint in the can, Bailey's Savings and Loan collapses, Mary divorces George. Upon his release from prison, for good behavior, George is a free man. He can now travel the world.

Anonymous said...

Bitter...paging Mr. Bitter.

tom said...

J.H. Kunstler makes the interesting point that the George Bailey's of the world ended up suburbanizing us into the oil dependency mess that we're in now, so Bedford Falls might've been better off without him:

Anonymous said...

Mary loved George since she was 8 years old. She was Sam Wainwright's girlfriend although she had little interest in him (And he played the field anyway) because she only loved George. As for Harry, he wasn't as selfless and duty-bound to run the family business. So what? He went off to college thanks to George, got drafted and became a war hero. Besides not wanting to stay at the B&L, he's not a bad man.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I always thought Pottersville was conveyed as a crime ridden, vice-laden place, so I don't buy the idea the people of Pottersville would be better off without George Bailey. Remember, Bailey helped people leave Potter's crappy tenements. Oh yeah, George would've beaten the rap on the embezzlement by easily throwing airheaded Uncle Billy under the bus, where he belonged anyway. :-)

Anonymous said...

Honestly one of my favorite movies and Jimmy Stewart's finest IMO. As much as I hate Harry Bailey's character, it fits in perfectly with George's selfless persona and it shouldn't be any different. I don't look at George as so much of a doormat as I do an honorable man with more to be thankful for than anyone else in the film. But honestly I too would rather him have serve up dumba** Uncle Billy. My vote for biggest transformation in life without George: his mother. Talk about scary.

Anonymous said...

You are an obvious selfish person who has never truly scarified for anyone. You should keep your bitter opinions to yourself and let the rest of us enjoy the holiday season.

Meredith O'Brien said...

Love the lively commentary. Who knew that "It's a Wonderful Life" could be such a controversial topic, or that Pottersville would represent different things to different folks.