December 19th 2015


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The first Christmas: a birth that set fire to men's hearts

CANBERRA OBSERVED A Nationals welcome no sure thing for Macfarlane

CLIMATE CHANGE $100bn a year climate fund the rub in Paris deadlock

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Free speech petition: appeal all 'right not to be offended' clauses

WATER POLICY Review tells of destruction of farms in Goulburn Valley

CULTURE AND POLITICS Liberalism's disappearing act on human freedom

TAX REVIEW Rise in GST a no go when the need is for jobs

HISTORY Taiwan's first people have survived waves of settlers

FREEDOM OF RELIGION Law not broad enough to contain freedom's flow

SPEECH IN PARLIAMENT Credit where credit is long overdue: B.A. Santamaria

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Swedish daycare part II: problems of weak parenting

CINEMA No life is lived as an island: It's a Wonderful Life

BOOK REVIEW A contribution to Pope Francis' call for a conversation on conservation

LETTERS

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CINEMA
No life is lived as an island: It's a Wonderful Life


by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, December 19, 2015

Bedford Falls, Christmas Eve, 1945. George Bailey (James Stewart) discouraged and believing himself a failure, wishes he’d never been born. The angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), sent to save George from suicide, grants him his wish, and George learns the value of his life, by seeing how things would have turned out without him.

This is how we tend to remember It’s a Wonderful Life, the cinematic sibling to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But there’s much more to it. George’s wish doesn’t come till late in the movie. Most of the film shows how George becomes the man he is, through the medium of the angels, depicted as galaxies, discussing his life, as they brief Clarence on his mission.

George, we learn, is a man who willingly sacrifices himself for others. Young George (Bobby Anderson) rescued his brother Harry (Georgie Nokes) from drowning, and lost his hearing in one ear as a result. He saved his employer, the druggist Mr Gower (H.B. Warner), from accidentally killing a child. He gives up his dreams of college and travel to take his father’s (Samuel S. Hinds) role, on his death, at the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan Society. He and his young wife Mary (Donna Reed) give up their honeymoon to help out when there’s a run on the banks.

George strives to give the working poor of Bedford Falls their own homes. He respects them and supports them, and works against the grasping Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who wants control over the whole town.

But George is not some plaster-cast saint, filled with a joy for poverty. Behind his decency lies a keen awareness of what he has given up and just how precarious his situation is. Every day in his life is a struggle. He is a good man, but a real one. Witness his rage when his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), loses $8,000 of the Building and Loan’s money just when the audit is due, witness his heavy drinking in the bar. George sees himself as a failure, and we can sympathise, even though we don’t agree.

Based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story, The Greatest Gift, the script went through multiple adaptations until it reached Capra. Although the screenplay is attributed to Capra, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, others were involved, such as humourist Dorothy Parker, playwright Clifford Odets, and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the most talented man on the Hollywood blacklist. Add to that the cast and crew, especially Jimmy Stewart, and you have a rich and real blend that defies simplistic categories.

The film has a complex reputation with commentators and critics. Wendell Jamieson in The New York Times, among others, found it a terrifying story about “relinquishing your dreams” and “being trapped”. Garry Kamiya and Rich Cohen writing for Salon.com, describe Bedford Falls as “claustrophobic” and “toxic”, arguing that the alternate reality of Pottersville is how the world really exists, and even that it is better.

Potter is seen as a shrewd businessman, unlike the idealistic Baileys. And Pottersville is hip and happening, more in keeping with the hedonistic and consumerist vibe that is praised these days. Such takes miss why: most of the population lives in Potter’s slums and the entertainment keeps them in their place. There is no need for a better world, as long as one gets enough pleasure in this one.

Ross Douthat commented in The Washington Post that the film’s vision of home ownership could lead to things like the subprime mortgage crisis, if not handled with the civic mindedness, and personal touch, of a George Bailey.

George may have been lending money to folk for homes they couldn’t afford, but he did so to support working families – for him, and them, a house was a home. It is the place to raise a family, a place to live; not an investment or a status symbol. The bonds of community would ensure things worked out for the best. Douthat and George agree that a society of owners makes for better citizens and a better community; but challenges arise when we leave the bonds of small and local communities and allow large and impersonal structures to manage our affairs.

At its heart, It’s a Wonderful Life offers a challenge to the predominant modern Western take on happiness. Happiness, we’re told, comes from doing what we want and following our passion. It’s a Wonderful Life argues that our life is made more meaningful by doing the right thing, by building a community and helping others. It doesn’t say that this makes things easier, or that such a life will always be happier – but it does argue that such a life is richer. George Bailey’s life, like our own, may be frustrated and full of disappointment, but it is still wonderful.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCE).




























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