My George Bailey epiphany
‘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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.