My George Bailey epiphany
‘It’s a wonderful life’ was required viewing at Christmas. Finally, one year, I saw its true mastery.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
The tape went into a box with spare Christmas ornaments and stayed there. The next Christmas Eve, we watched my family’s second-favorite holiday movie instead, the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol,” starring Alistair Sim. Christmases came and went. The boyfriend became a husband; I admitted that I hated my career and started over. I went back to school to study filmmaking. That December, I got an assignment to study a black-and-white movie and write a paper about it. So one afternoon, I dug the tape from its nest of tinsel and watched it again.
I sat, notebook and pen forgotten in my lap, watching a movie I couldn’t take my eyes off. I admired everything: the crisp pacing, the witty script, the raw emotions flashing across Jimmy Stewart’s face. Over the years, I’d loved the film and hated it. I’d just never noticed it was a masterpiece.
Sometime during that viewing, it dawned on me that I hadn’t really swapped stories when I switched from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “A Christmas Carol.” Far from creating a fable of conformity, I saw that Frank Capra had actually managed to retell the most famous Christmas story in the English language in his own words. George Bailey is an American Ebenezer Scrooge, visited by a supernatural being who shows him a different perspective of his own life. Both men discover what the world would be like without their participation – Tiny Tim dead, Uncle Billy consigned to the insane asylum – and realize their actions make a difference to the world. Like otherworldly therapists, the ghosts and angels don’t perform any miracles. They simply deliver the gift of new eyes.
Dec. 24 falls just two days after the longest night of the year, a fitting time for George and Ebenezer to live through the dark nights of their souls. On Christmas, we string colored bulbs and light candles to remind ourselves that there is some kind of light in the darkness. The holidays are full of rituals to renew our faith, however we choose to define it. And at 10:30 on Christmas Eve, I know exactly which one I’ll be following.