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Jewish World Review / Dec. 24, 1998 /5 Teves, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg IT'S STILL A

(JWR) ---- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com)TO MANY AMERICANS, this season would not be complete without at least a few scenes from "It's a Wonderful Life.''

The movie wasn't much of a hit when it was first released, just after the Second World War, but it has slowly acquired an immense popularity -- and even a certain critical acclaim. Perhaps that is because it represents a peculiarly American vision. It's not just a vision of Christmas -- as in that last, tear-wrenching scene in front of the tree -- but of a society, and how it ought to be.

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I once read a brief analysis of the movie by a professor of American studies at Boston University, and it got me thinking not so much about the movie as about the consistent misunderstandings of professors. Professor Ray Carney's book about Frank Capra's films was titled "American Vision.'' And in it, he said the movie shows that, while life can be "an enriching Norman Rockwell experience, it also can be smothering, where you end up marrying the girl you went to high school with, and you never get to go to Europe. ... It tells us George is one of the most sad and lonely and tragic characters ever imagined. I cry when I see it.''

This middle-brow confesses to having shed a few tears over "It's a Wonderful Life'' myself -- but not for the professor's reasons. For nothing in the movie seems as sad as the professor's analysis of it. George Bailey a tragic figure? Why, he's the richest man in town, as his brother says at the end of the film. He makes Mr. Potter, that old miser, look like a pauper -- because George Bailey has loved and sacrificed and built and given and even stood alone a time or two. No, he never got to be a tourist in Europe, but he didn't go through life as just a tourist. He lived.

Not getting to Europe does not strike some of us as the kind of experience that qualifies as tragic. I grew up in a family full of people who were born in Europe. To them, not coming to America would have been the tragedy.

The movie's message is that George Bailey has not led a sad, lonely or tragic life, much as he might think so in his more self-pitying moments. Could the professor, like so many Americans, have been using "tragic'' as just a synonym for sad? It's a common American misusage, and says much about the nature of our history. Lacking experience with the real thing, we call everything from a fender-bender to a bankruptcy a tragedy.

Surely, only someone born in America would be so bereft of the tragic sense of life as to consider marrying your high school sweetheart a tragedy. These latitudes are simply not hospitable to the tragic art, though in the go-getting American spirit, we can compete with the best of foreigners in that department. (See F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.'') If there is a moral to Frank Capra's movie, it may be the comment from Clarence, George's bumbling guardian angel: "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole to fill, doesn't he? ... You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?'' There's a lot more Eugene Field in that observation than Eugene O'Neill.

It's hard to imagine "It's a Wonderful Life'' being made at a time when Jerry Springer sets the pace for pop culture. Yet this wholesome, all-American movie has one of the most erotic -- well, sensual -- vignettes in the history of movieland: Prim Donna Reed's seduction of Jimmy Stewart without taking a stitch off, and with Mama just up the stairs.

The scene is full of irony and double meanings: "He says it's the chance of a lifetime,'' she breathes, passing on a message about a business deal from another suitor on the other end of the line. The subtext is already clear to the viewer, even if it take George Bailey another rapturous second to get it. She is indeed holding out the chance of a lifetime: Love. Trust. Family. The whole, masterful minute or so represents a blend of two qualities no longer depicted as regularly in American movies -- love and marriage.

In the movie, you can almost smell Donna Reed's clean, clean hair and taste the saltiness of her tears -- and feel Jimmy Stewart's heartbeat as he discovers the sweetness of what is important in life. ("Now you listen to me! I don't want any plastics! I don't want any ground floors, and I don't want to get married -- ever -- to anyone! You understand that? I want do what I want to do. And you're ... and you're ... Oh, Mary ... Mary. ...''

The next music you hear is the wedding march. What's a fellow to do when given the chance of a lifetime? It's a wonderful life. Frank Capra made marrying your high school sweetheart seem any number of things, including comedy, but not tragedy.

"It's a Wonderful Life'' is a celebration of the usual middle-class virtues, which are not usual enough in this or many another decade. To quote Nancy Dillon, a writer who can remember watching the film with her father: "We laughed, and cried, a lot that afternoon, and at the end I no longer saw my father as being at all ordinary.'' There are few things more extraordinary than the ordinary virtues of small-town, middle-class America.

Nancy Dillon, it might be noted, lives in Worthington, Ohio -- which sounds not unlike the movie's Bedford Falls. The values of Bedford Falls are those our professional intellectuals are supposed to see through. Sometimes they are so busy seeing through them that they don't see them at all. Or they confuse the happy with the sad, the lonely with the interconnected, and, strangest of all, the triumphant with the tragic. Which is what George Bailey did in his despair.

Equally undiscerning are those who would idealize small towns; they don't see the potential Pottersville inside every Bedford Falls. Yes, both are as sharply delineated as cartoons in this movie, but that doesn't mean Sodom-like Pottersville is beyond redemption, or that all-American Bedford Falls is never tempted.

There's a chilling moment in Bedford Falls when Old Man Potter uses, yes, Family Values to ask George Bailey to sell himself.

"You wouldn't mind living in the nicest house in town,'' Mr. Potter purrs, "buying your wife a lot of fine clothes, a couple of business trips to New York a year, maybe once in a while Europe. You wouldn't mind that, would you, George?'' Well, can George think about all this? "Sure, sure, sure. You go on home and talk about it to your wife. ... In the meantime I'll draw up the papers."

And how about that devastating moment when George Bailey sees his Friend the Success driving off to Florida, complete with homburg, plaid suit, limo and wife-with-furpiece straight out of the 1940s' Good Life catalogue. And all George can think to do is stare at his old jalopy and kick the door. The Chance of a Lifetime missed! As if he and Mary and his little savings-and-loan hadn't just hit the jackpot by installing another family in a home of their own in Bailey Park, complete with bread and wine.

The sheer craftsmanship of Frank Capra invests scene after scene with that kind of darkness and light. His aim, he once said, was to say again what Walt Whitman said to his countrymen: "The sum of all known reverences, I add up in you, whoever you are. ...'' Just one so-called ordinary man, like George Bailey, can make the difference between Pottersville and Bedford Falls. Just as Mary Hatch made all the difference for him.

Think of all those who make a difference in your town -- and of those who don't. The most unsettling aspect of the popularity now accorded "It's a Wonderful Life'' is the realization that nostalgia for certain values tends to set in just when they are disappearing.

Happily, nostalgia can also bring values back, for there are fashions in values just as there are in clothes. It's even possible that one of these days we will come to understand what the Puritans and Victorians understood so well -- before they became only labels to pin on the opposition.

The distinguished professor's view of George Bailey as a tragic figure strikes me as sadder than anything in the movie, but at least it's not tragic. It's more comic, this being America. I wish the professor a merry Christmas, a happy New Year and a wonderful life.


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate