I had been betrayed. My beloved movie was clearly a piece of 1940s propaganda, designed to sell the masses on conformity and the nuclear family. George wasted his life doing what authority figures told him to. No wonder he felt like jumping in the river! He should have followed his own dreams, gone off to build bridges and railroads in far-flung countries, had adventures. Now he was stuck in a decaying town with a leaky house, four whiny kids, and a matronly looking wife, and boy, was he ever sorry. I wanted to sit George down and ask him a few hard questions, such as: Why are you the only person capable of running the building and loan? But I knew he wouldn’t have any answers for me.
The world kept turning. Every Christmas Eve, WGN showed “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but I wasn’t around to watch it anymore. Like George, I’d set out to make a grown-up life for myself. I took a series of jobs that turned out to be lousy and moved around the country, looking for better ones. VCRs became affordable, and one Dec. 24, my boyfriend pulled one early present from under the tree: my very own copy of the film.
I unwrapped a plate of cookies, and we popped the tape in at 10:30 sharp. I settled in for the holiday propaganda I knew so well, as dense and comforting as my mother’s leaden fruitcake. But in the years I’d been away, the movie had somehow morphed into a different picture.
That night, I watched a dark, dark film. How had this piece of raw angst ever become acceptable Christmas viewing? At the center of the movie is a suicide attempt. Standing on that bridge in the snow, George decides to kill himself. He’s been stalked by death and failure his whole life, and now he’s finally lost the game. George lives in a world where your kid brother can drown if you’re not careful, where your father dies too young and leaves you responsible for an alcoholic uncle and a penniless mother. This time, when George complained that Clarence looks like the kind of guardian angel he’d get – an angel who hasn’t earned his wings yet – I silently agreed with him. This is the man’s darkest hour, and divine intervention sends the office intern to help him out. It’s just par for the course for George’s life.