Classic film comedies, especially slapstick, lifted spirits from the Great Depression until the Vietnam War. However, the death of druggist Gower’s son from the Spanish flu and the suicide of a likable nobody darken one Christmas film. The prospect of self-extinction sets a masterpiece in motion.
Next year marks the 75th anniversary of perhaps our most beloved American film: Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. He intended to release it in early 1947, but the studio rushed it into theaters in December. The hopes of Army veterans Capra and Jimmy Stewart for three Oscars yielded to William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which honored war losses and veterans’ hopes, especially Homer Parrish’s lost hands and the risk that Wilma Cameron might reject a maimed veteran. Her commitment reflects the optimistic “Greatest Generation,” who resolutely emerged from catastrophe.
If Capra’s film had competed for the 1947 Oscars, two of its competitors would have been Christmas fantasies: Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop’s Wife. These three films and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol celebrate vital a truth: Authentic leadership nourishes the fullness of our humanity, rather than roil us over the number of COVID-19 cases.
The film ends with George Bailey rejoicing over a tinkling bell as Angel 2nd Class Clarence Odbody earns his wings. Despairing like Ebenezer Scrooge after the Ghost of Christmas to Come exposes his spiritual poverty, George prepares to jump from the bridge. Though dreading the prospect of prison, he cannot ignore the chubby victim floundering below him. Disbelieving the angel’s claims as they later warm themselves by a stove, he errs in looking inward rather than upward. Clarence, granting George’s wish for extinction, shows him the Pottersville exploited by a Scrooge incapable of repentance.
England’s greatest Christmas tale differs from ours. Whereas Dickens’ three spirits expose Scrooge’s selfish priorities and the consequent indifference of others to his death, Capra’s angel shows George the bleakness of virtue’s absence. Like Longfellow Deeds of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), “Long John” Willoughby of Meet John Doe (1941) and Jefferson Smith of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Capra’s final Common Man discovers that mercy offered begets mercy received, thus confirming the Christian maxim “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
These four characters mirror concepts from Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s The Divorce Culture: They are “obligated selves” rather than “unfettered selves” who “do their own thing.” Their freedom leads to serving others ahead of themselves. George Bailey exposes the pretense that the autonomous self finds happiness in making up his own rules.
By welcoming his duties, George, an “obligated self,” reaps affectionate gratitude. His moral lapse is despair, not Scrooge’s self-absorption. Some fans complained that Capra’s Scrooge escapes punishment for stealing $8,000 from Uncle Billy, but viewers know what he deserves. George and Ebenezer find redemption, but by isolating himself, Potter misses his.
These film fantasies, like The Lord of The Rings, revive our hunger for the fullness of life in relation — not in isolation. During Christmas, the media’s daily barrage of viral anxieties locates us in Pottersville, but the transcendent messengers debunk anxiety as the way to live.