The Twelve Flicks of Christmas

A New ben’s TEN Series

Get the Scoop You Won’t Find Anywhere Else on 12 Christmas Movies Old and New
[See complete list of reviews]

It’s a Wonderful Life (1947)
Directed by Frank Capra
Not Rated
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Beulah Bondi and Gloria Grahame

Review by Ben Koch

Conventional Synopsis:
Ever since childhood, George Bailey has dreamed of escaping the mediocre town of Bedford Falls to explore exotic locations and do “something big, something important.” Time and again, however, his opportunities to leave–vacations, for college, even a honeymoon–are thwarted by circumstances both historical and personal. One desperate Christmas Eve, a tragic mistake drives George to the brink of suicide (he’s “worth more dead than alive.”). When angelic intervention gives George a glimpse of the world as if he’d never been born, his eyes are opened to the interconnectedness of all beings and the ripple effect that even small acts can have on humankind.

Beneath the Surface:
So many in the last few generations are familiar with the iconic closing scene of It’s a Wonderful Life in which George Bailey is holding his daughter near the family Christmas tree. When a bell mysteriously rings on one of the ornaments the little girl declares that when “a bell rings, an angel has earned his wings.” It’s unfortunate this has become the quaint, loaded soundbite which represent a film working on so many more profound levels than such encapsulated sentimentality.

There is so much happening in this masterpiece, in fact, that I could write 10 separate reviews with 10 distinct focuses and they’d hardly repeat themselves. This wouldn’t be a b10 review, however, if we didn’t get a little arcane and put a non-mainstream filter on George Bailey’s awakening. As we’ve seen throughout this review series, a certain spiritual alchemy that leads to transformation is a key element of a powerful Xmas flick. Usually we travel with a character with deplorable or at least generally negative qualities as some kind of trigger or catharsis opens him or her to a more loving part of their nature. Think about Frank Cross (Scrooged), Walter Hobbs (Elf), Steve Finch and Buddy Hall (Deck the Halls), Jack Campbell (Family Man), Scrooge (A Christmas Carol) and of course the Grinch. Some of these transformation are done better than others (see reviews for details) but the same basic narrative structure exists in all these cases.

What sets George Bailey apart from this crew is the fact that he’s already an admirable character, displaying kindness, patience, humility and selflessness throughout the story (the real Scrooge in this story, the banker Henry F. Potter, actually gets more pernicious and evil as the story goes on). George saves at least a couple of lives directly and, as we later learn, has indirectly saved hundreds more by simply following his intuitive sense of right and wrong. His father tells him he was “born older,” which is a straightforward way of trying to describe the wisdom and character that George Bailey possesses. And yet one of the most powerful transformations in film history does take place. How is this so?

What we learn is that a flawless character does not make a flawless man. All of George Bailey’s dreams deferred have festered deep below the surface in a quiet cauldron of regret and bitterness. Although he weathered life’s blows with admirable steadfastness–forgoing college to take over his father’s Building and Loan and again later to allow his brother to marry; using his nest egg to save the Building and Loan from a run during the depression–traces of those lost dreams have splintered into his consciousness. There are occasions when this inner turmoil becomes visible, such as the rather rapturous scene when he breaks down in Mary’s living room and seems to finally accept the fact that he’s not destined for a life outside of Bedford Falls. And later under the right conditions, his “last straw” you might say, the cauldron comes bubbling in a boil to the surface and George Bailey’s world, and character, implode.

When Clarence, the simple-minded angel with the “faith of a child,” tells George: “You’ve been given a great gift, George. The chance to see what the world would be like without you,” he is, in fact, describing a profound spiritual lesson that most only entertain intellectually. As George wanders through the strange echo city of “Pottersville” and slowly begins to realize how even his smallest actions have rippled through the external and internal world, he is understanding the true nature of interconnectedness, of karmic cause and effect. These are concepts mystics describe in many ways according to the available vocabulary of their context, and here Capra beautifully and carefully plays it out in film, the medium of his time. All the acts of selflessness and sacrifice that he’s undergone, George learns, have been catalysts for effects that transcended him. This realization comes to a peak when George returns to the bridge where he originally contemplated suicide. “I don’t care what happens to me!” he wails to the cold,wet night, “just take me back to my family.” In this moment, he has escaped the bounds of his own self-interested ego and in doing so has unlocked the key, the spiritual doorway if you will, to escape his previously perceived prison of a life in Bedford Falls. The mundane has become “Wonderful.”

“Every man’s life touches every other man’s life.” This is the simple wisdom Clarence gives George. Although it may take us years or even lifetimes of spiritual work to really embody this truth, It’s a Wonderful Life gives us that taste of realization that refreshes our own vision. To anyone of us who have felt trapped by an ordinary life, this is truly a blessing. This brilliant story will remain on my Xmas watching list for many years to come.

Ratings

Cocoa Factor = 8 out of 10
How good is this one for cozying up with a fire burning, a hot beverage of your choice, and your new Snuggy?

Magicality = 10 out of 10
How well does this one transport you back to the timeless wonderment beyond rationality when Christmas enveloped you in magic? AKA “The Santa Clause factor.”

A Date with Grandma and Aunt Bernice = 10 out of 10
How appropriate/awkward is this one to watch with relatives of all ages? Will hot kissing scenes or male rear nudity spoil the mood?

Tiny Tim’s Big Truths = 10 out of 10
From the mouths of babes come life’s most profound lessons. At the heart of this flick, how authentic, heartfelt and lasting is the message? Does it transcend Xmas clichés and ring bells?

Overall = 10 out of 10

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About bensten

Teacher, writer, blogger and spiritual practitioner. Managing editor of bensten.wordpress.com.

3 responses »

  1. Matt Stewart says:

    Nice work, I love how the cocoa factor is the only one that didn’t get a 10 😀

  2. […] not so veiled echo of It’s a Wonderful Life. While George Bailey wished HIMSELF away and saw the consequences of a world without the infinite interconnected ripples of his actions, Kevin McAllister wishes his […]

  3. …..The official Christmas season begins this month and along with celebrating the birth of my Lord by trampling each other to save 20 on an Xbox at Wal-Mart while supplies last it also means the airing of Frank Capra s iconic 1946 holiday film ….For years I watched this movie and like many Americans would come away with that warm fuzzy feeling. But one character in this film always bothered me. Think about it. George Bailey s kid brother makes out like a bandit in this flick. And why is that? Because Harry Todd Karns throughout this film is a steam-roller of selfishness.

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