Ah, Capra; where the good people are so wonderfully, powerfully good, small confined spaces like buses and little towns are riddled with quirky characters who say and do quirky things, thus creating jolly innocent banter that carries forth a spirit and likeability that no other director has ever, and perhaps will ever, be able to recreate. Capra’s jovial world, his innocence, his storytelling, plays out in such a way that it could only exist and create believability in the time whence it was created. Nowadays, we’re all too jaded and technological for displaying a well-turned ankle or jumping up and clicking our heels. But every year at Christmas time, we (at least once) abandon our cynicism in favour of the story of how an elderly, kindly, wingless angel named Clarence helps George Bailey see that his life has touched so many others, that he mustn’t off himself on a bridge one stormy Christmas eve.
God, I love this movie. I really do; I’m not above it, I’m not too cynical for it, I don’t care if it plays multiple times on multiple channels every single Christmas time, and will probably play multiple times on multiple channels every single Christmas for all eternity until the sun burns out. I don’t; I love Jimmy Stewart, I love the sentiment, and nothing makes you feel more Christmas-y than the town of Bedford Falls donating funds to the Baileys in hopes of saving the ol’ Bailey Bros. loan business from destruction. At the end of the movie when he opens the book to reveal the message, "Remember: no man is a failure who has friends,” the world seems right and a wealth of joyful Christmas happiness feels so reachable, you can suspend all disbelief and even believe that Santa Claus will come sliding down the chimney with his sack full of toys. Yes, Capra’s Christmas classic is that powerful.
The good are so good; the evil are so evil. But not so much that it is unrealistic or that the characters are not without flaws. George Bailey has an attitude, a certain weight and depression that he carries with him through the film. As one of my wisest professors told me once though, “Jimmy Stewart is at his best when he’s suffering.” It’s so true. And he suffers here in that he’s given up everything – his travelling dreams, his hopes of college, of building skyscrapers and seeing the whole world and taking his wife on a dream honeymoon – to save Bedford Falls and his father’s business and his family’s integrity. He helps immigrants and the impovershed and the marginalized and his family and his brother and the trampy but gold-hearted Violet in the midst of his depression. Sure, he’s a martyr – but he certainly doesn’t love doing all of these things. You can see it; you can feel it; he wants out. But his goodness stops him from doing so and then he finds himself on a bridge at the end of his rope on Christmas eve.
Once Clarence allows him to see what the world would be like if he didn’t exist, the message is clear and almost verging on preachy; Clarence full-out states the idea that one life can touch so many others; all of George’s friends, family members and acquaintance in the entire town would be miserable lost poor souls without his goodness and kindness, and this helps him see that perhaps all of his delusions of grandeur were merely selfish whims and that his dreams have already come true; he has a great family, a supportive town and wonderful friends. There’s no need to be or feel like a failure when you have so many wonderful people by your side. And that’s a message that is so easily forgotten when we have huge schemes and huge ideas and things we want to accomplish; when it comes down to it, growth of happiness under one’s feet is what is real, and what will always keep you happy. It’s a message that is brought to us in the greatest Christmas movie of all-time, but should be recalled, remembered and kept fresh all year round.
While Capra’s delightful world of homecoming pool parties, ice cream parlours and Rockwell-esque cops and jalopies and friendly townsfolk popping out of windows to say good morning is naive, his messages of hope and love are certainly at their core, idealistic in the most magical way imaginable. There are many reasons to love his movies and above all, the message behind the happy medium is the most crucial.