‘It’s a wonderful life’ was required viewing at Christmas. Finally, one year, I saw its true mastery.
It was the same every year. First, my mom whipped the Saran Wrap off some Christmas cookies we hadn’t been allowed to touch until that moment. Then we turned the TV dial to Chicago’s WGN, Channel 9. At 10:30, the first black-and-white frames filled the screen: “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart.
Hypnotized, I nibbled on almond crescents as the story unfolded. It’s Christmas Eve, and George Bailey is teetering on the brink. He’s spent his whole life doing his duty, keeping the family building and loan afloat, giving mortgages to cops and taxi drivers so they can buy decent houses. Then bumbling Uncle Billy loses an $8,000 bank deposit. Facing bankruptcy and prison, George contemplates jumping in the river so his family can collect his life insurance. But a trainee guardian angel appears. Clarence persuades George to change his mind by letting him see what his hometown would have been like if he’d never been born.
It’s a familiar formula today, spoofed everywhere from radio ads to “Saturday Night Live” skits. But to me, in grade school, it was sacred. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was gospel, as true as the carols I sang at Sunday mass.
It wasn’t until college that I began to doubt George Bailey. Somehow, my joy in watching his life unreel had worn thin. So I took a break from finals and sneaked into a late-night screening at the Student Union, thinking the novel setting would bring back the magic. But as the lights came up over the final strains of “Auld Lang Syne,” I sat stewing in righteous indignation.