Grudging altruism, ceaseless compromise, half-measures, a natural talent for holding down the fort, unfulfilled longings that, more harrowingly, perhaps never really could have been fulfilled: all of these things, accumulating over half a lifetime, drove George Bailey to get stinko, drive into an old tree, then stumble toward that snow-caked bridge over which he planned to tumble into the oblivion of river below. Suicide is painless when you’ve never once tasted what you truly craved, when the walls close in. And, for the third time in the movie, George does fall into the water. (Am I the only one that sees Vertigo when Jimmy Stewart makes the plunge, over and over, first for his brother, then into the hidden pool, and then into the river?) Only it’s to save a man from drowning, not to drown himself—yet again, George is a slave to self-sacrifice. That the drowning man is really a trickster guardian angel who proves to George that he’s well-friended, even beloved, that his town would be a nastier place (though one with a far more bustling night life) without him, doesn’t entirely remove the ache of it all, the fact that George Bailey still never got the hell out of Bedford Falls. And I think this is one of the enduring things about It’s a Wonderful Life: the magical consolation that ends the movie is, in the long run, in the years we imagine to come, only marginally consoling. Life will probably not get much easier for George Bailey. But, like some poor soul from Beckett, he’ll go on.
I’m only slightly embarrassed that I’d never seen It’s a Wonderful Life until last night. Everyone I know has seen it on TV; I don’t watch TV. But anyway what’s especially interesting about the movie is the way it actually seems designed/destined to be watched long after its making. It was a box office disappointment in its day, won none of its Oscars, and only became a holiday broadcast staple in the 1970s. It’s a movie about everything that leads us up to our worst moments, the long march of our pasts and the hard work of accepting cold comforts. The movie was always meant to be a classic, which means to be loved sometime in the future, when everyone involved was dead or dying and nostalgia has wrapped itself tightly round the movie’s breast. The sad truth: apparently George Bailey really is worth more to us dead than alive. Though while the screen is alight, he is, somehow, alive. And, as it turns out, he’s in a pretty wonderful movie.