I’ve always had an issue with the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. I think I’m a little protective of George Bailey, mostly because Jimmy Stewart is the likely source of my infatuation with freakishly tall men. Yet despite my desire to smack Mary upside the head, this is still my favorite movie of all time. And it isn’t Christmas unless I watch it twice…once about a week before Christmas to put me in the spirit, and then again on Christmas Eve with heavy duty eggnog and bawling my eyes out at the end, right before I go to Midnight Mass and get incredibly weepy about the state of my life and pray for my own Christmas miracle.
Wow, that’s a downer. Sure, most people think this is a cheerful movie about appreciating the simple things in life, like friends, small town folksiness, winning world wars and guardian angels. Damn it all, what is cuter than Zuzu wanting to paste her flower petals back on? [Sidebar: What kind of name is Zuzu? Aren’t you kind of dooming her to a life as a stripper?]
Typically I’m a fan of Frank Capra redemption movies. Or perhaps that’s just because of Jimmy Stewart. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington almost makes me want to run for office every time, except for the fact it reminds me that Congress was hopelessly corrupt even in the 30s.
But I’ve always been in love with the dark side of this movie, even decades before I realized how much it reminds me of my life. During my brief stint as a media studies major in college, I wrote a paper comparing the film noir elements of this movie with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Surprisingly, they are very similar, aside from the severed human ear in the latter. Although I always suspected the twitchy bank examiner gave off a serial killer vibe.
What really irritates me about It’s a Wonderful Life–increasingly so in my advanced years–is how George is trapped into living this life he had no interest in living. He had dreams to be an architect and travel the world. But what happened? Everyone around him took advantage of his guilty conscience. I would suspect his mother was Catholic if the family didn’t appear so WASPy.
First, his dad dies, and he is guilted into giving up his world trip and college to stay and run the family business. He sends his brother to school on his dime, and what does his brother do? Marries a rich broad who wants to move to Buffalo (God knows why anyone would move to Buffalo, aside from my ex, which tells you all you need to know.) He supports his widowed mother and is forced to employ Uncle Billy and his pet squirrel so he isn’t institutionalized. [Another sidebar: Every time I see Uncle Billy and that squirrel I think of Bob Ross and that maybe Uncle Billy could have been a painter.]
And finally there’s Mary. I want to kick Mary’s ass. If she cared at all for George, she would have supported his dreams. Instead, she guilts the guy into marrying her, and then makes him buy the biggest money pit in town even though he really can’t afford it. What does it cost to heat that monstrosity? Bedford Falls is cold! She traps him with all those kids until he feels completely smothered and eventually snaps at all of them. The pained look of resignation from George in that moment just rips my heart out every time.
If I could rewrite the ending, here’s what I would do. When Bert the cop finds George on the bridge after his futuristic gloom and doom sequence, I wish George would have decided that his life only had meaning if he lived the life of his childhood dreams. Screw everybody else; they were just using him anyway. Those so-called friends who show up with money at the end? Yeah, those were the same people ready to shut down your business and who were all too willing to take your honeymoon money. I bet they would steal your hubcaps and hock those too, if your car had hubcaps. George should have gone straight to Potter from the bridge and offered to sign over the Building & Loan in exchange for immunity from prosecution and a promise to leave town. That’s all Potter wanted. Besides, everyone knew it was senile Uncle Billy’s fault anyway.
Then George should have gone home and started packing his bags for New York. When Mary returns to tell him she went to Sam to bail him out, he should tell her he’s leaving. She’s always played the two of them off each other, and she knows how insecure George is about money. That bitch wants to throw it in his face again? He should tell her to fuck off and go be with Sam since she clearly regrets not choosing the man with money. Then he should move to New York with Violet. Violet looks like she knows how to have fun, as long as it doesn’t involve walking barefoot in grass. She wouldn’t turn down a life of travel and climbing that tall man like a jungle gym. I guarantee she wouldn’t be such a nag and she wouldn’t tie him to a big old house full of kids.
I think that when most people hit rock bottom and think of ending their lives, and they have an epiphany to stop them from going through with it, they come out wanting to create the life they have always envisioned. To have George resign himself to accepting the life he was forced into is disingenuous. Yes, the ringing bells and war hero brother’s toast always make me cry, but I think what I cry about most is that moment right after the bell rings when I swear you see a glimmer of regret in George’s eyes to know he’ll never get his dream ending. I think that is why people connect with this movie every holiday season as we start to reflect on another year passing us by.
Somehow I don’t think It’s a ‘Meh’ Life has the same ring to it, but I bet Jimmy Stewart could have sold that too.