Saturday, December 24, 2011

It's life? Wonderful!

One of the most beloved Christmas traditions in the Gibson family is watching It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas eve. True to form, we cannot simply sit still and watch the whole movie straight through--at any given point, one or more of us is out of the room doing something else: wrapping presents, putting finishing touches on the breakfast casserole for the next morning, in the room but checking emails, etc. However, despite such distractions, my mom managed to sell my brother, sister and I on this 130 minute, 1946 black and white film (I mention the length, year and color because, for children, each of those factors would have ordinarily been severe strikes against a movie).

I don't remember how old I was when I first watched the movie--it's been at least 10 years, and it used to be one of a bunch of movies we would try to watch every year: Home Alone 1&2, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and later, Elf. However, Wonderful Life is the only film that has stood the test of time (and increasingly busy schedules) in our family. The reasons are obvious:

It's a classic film--quite simply, "they" do not make movies like this anymore. Holiday films today are seldom more than formulaic comedies in which characters compete for the best gifts, family dysfunction at the holidays is played up for laughs, or characters somehow wind up with Santa's responsibilities. Worth a laugh? Perhaps. Nonetheless, even the funniest of these films lacks substance. It's a Wonderful Life starts with a substantial bang as we're introduced to the key conflict of the film right away: George Bailey is thinking about taking his own life and his worried friends and family are praying for him, prayers that we hear as the film opens in a low-tech shot of guardian angels (represented by twinkling stars against a black back-drop) discussing the situation in heaven.

The main character, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), is realistic and ultimately easy to relate to. He's ambitious and gifted, also flawed and frustrated. As we watch snippets from his childhood and early adulthood, we connect with this man and gain a firm grasp on who he is; it turns out that this is very important, because as George grows more despondent and desperate over the course of the film, he does and says things that upset the people around him. For the most part, the movie does a superb job of keeping us in George's shoes. George makes mistakes, loses his temper, speaks before he thinks--it's a place I've been, a place many of us have been. To take one of his outbursts out of context would be deeply disconcerting, but when viewed in light of George's background and experiences, we as the viewers empathize and even root for him to pull through.

With each passing year, I've gained an increasing appreciation for Donna Reed as George's wife Mary. It depresses me when I hear my students (even guys my age) talk about which actress they think is the hottest--beauty has become such a superficial quality, one that is literally no deeper than the skin and can, to outward appearances, be purchased at a tanning salon or through plastic surgery. When the 'hottest actress' question comes my way, I always answer "Donna Reed from It's a Wonderful Life." Not only is Reed's Mary Bailey attractive in a realistic and wholesome way, there is beauty in the way that she sees through George's occasionally glaring flaws and loves him anyway. She's a loving and supportive wife, and as George's mother sagely advises him, the girl "who can help you find the answers". She's not Violet Bick, the blonde bombshell who flirts with George throughout the film (and the type who probably would've been the subject of an adolescent "hottest actress" list in 1946), and as it turns out, this is entirely refreshing. My crush on Mary Bailey has helped to reinforce in my mind that I need to seek out a woman who has depth of character--that designations like "hot" are ultimately meaningless and certainly not a secure basis for a meaningful relationship.

Beyond George's relatability and Mary's wholesome and supportive beauty, the attraction of the movie lies in its simple message: life is a wonderful gift. Though the movie's religious sensibilities are very much 1940s Hollywood targeting Middle America, the notion of life as a gift is timeless. It's all too easy to become self-absorbed, particularly when life becomes busy, challenging or painful; too easy to focus on how bad I have it, and how I wish I could trade with someone else or that I'd never been born at all. In the movie, Clarence the angel forces George to look outward, at the lives of those around him after granting George's wish to see what the world would be like without him. What George finds in looking outward was just how much of an impact he had on the lives of others, simply by being himself and through thick and thin, standing up for what he believed in. I tell my students that life is about decisions, and those decisions yield results that might not predict, consequences we may never see. It's not to generate a sense that the world revolves around us, but rather a sense of how responsible we are, and how our lives fit like a puzzle piece with the lives of our families, friends and communities.

Life truly is wonderful, and at a time of year when we celebrate the Incarnation and our very reason for living, it's great to watch a classic old movie that shares this value. Well, the movie has now started--a young George Bailey is just rescuing his brother Harry from the hole in the ice. Merry Christmas eve, dear readers!

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