How have I managed to get through 50 years without seeing this classic Christmas film? I don’t know. The Deniliquin Film Society screened it this month and so, with mince pies clutched in our hands, my whole family and several friends reclined on the sofas at the front of the venue and submitted to a good dose of Frank Capra wit and sentimentality. It’s a cracker of a film and much less saccharine than I was expecting.
Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey and we are shown the arc of his life to date from the viewpoint of Clarence, an angel trying to earn his wings. We don’t see Clarence, just some low-tech 1940s special effects representing pulsing angelic stars, and this sets us up for the warm homeliness of this story of compromise and redemption. We see that George has spent his life sacrificing his own ideals to help those around him. His desire to study, see the world and make an impact on a large scale is thwarted at every turn by the effects of the Depression, the stock market crash, his family’s needs, his love for a woman. At the point where Clarence intervenes, George has hit a low point, a mid-life crisis as he realises that all of his dreams have come to naught.
The morality of this film is clear – sacrifice for others is a noble thing that will be repaid in love and happiness if you stay true. There is a quote we see on George’s father’s wall, something along the lines of ‘I will have everything if I give away all that I have’ and we see George tested as he tries to live up to this ideal. It’s important to understand the context of this film, released in 1946, a year after the end of the Second World War and during a time where there were job and food shortages and waves of strikes. There were soldiers home from the war, broken and damaged, and many who did not return, families convincing themselves that there was a purpose to their sacrifice. It was a year since the atomic bombs, dropped by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had killed over 130,000 ordinary people, just like the folk of Bedford Falls, George’s hometown. It is no surprise, then, that the good of the collective is shown as a moral imperative, more important than the needs of the individual.
I understand this and took some pleasure in the neat warmth of the film’s ending. So appropriate for Christmas time where our attention turns to those we love. Was I the only one, though, who wondered how George’s life would have been if he’d gone off to study and see the world and then come back to small town life and his love? If there wasn’t someone else who could have kept his father’s business going, just for a few years? I feel this is the lot of so many people now, trying to grasp hold of the dreams we have whilst maintaining work and parenting and caring and selflessness. It is the individualist in me, the working mother, who is sure that George could have gotten just a few stickers on his suitcase and still saved the world.
Bechdel test – pass