“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people caroling years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that disappear quicker than a snowbank in Hawaii. It’s not a question of genre – the Ten Percent has room for slapstick holiday comedy, high-toned holiday drama, quality holiday animation, and science fiction with a holiday theme. Oh, and over there you can find show-stopping holiday musicals chatting with bloody holiday horror (okay, that one might be a stretch). At any rate, the Ten Percent last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception. Simply having a holiday theme is not enough – as we’ve written about before.
We’ve discussed before about Frank Capra’s contributions to the Ten Percent (check here and here), but we haven’t touched on one particular niblet of Capra-corn that gets almost constant airplay this time of year. Yep – it’s time for a look at It’s a Wonderful Life; the Christmas classic to rule them all.
Confession time – up until about five years ago, I sniffed at Wonderful Life. It was too schmaltzy, too white-bread, cheesy enough to spread . . . oh, I went on and on. Then, at a friend’s gentle behest (and the threat of being duct-taped to a chair if I resisted), I watched the whole thing at one go and let the story unspool without my cynicism wrecking things. Instead, I just let the tale wash over me.
Readers, I can admit when I’m wrong.
Wonderful Life is, quite simply, wonderful. Yes, maybe it is Capra-corn, but perhaps we need a little of that in our shadowy, morally ambiguous world. This film is not only a quirky tale that somehow manages to successfully use suicide to warm our spirits and gladden our hearts; it’s a film that is so gosh-darned sincere that you really can’t help getting caught up in the events of George Bailey’s life and the lives of the other folks who call Bedford Falls home.
Jimmy Stewart plays George, a good, thoroughly decent man whose highly-developed sense of responsibility means that his own dreams are constantly put on hold. He’s got a good life – a loving wife (Donna Reed, in her first starring role), adorable moppet children, the respect of the townspeople, and more friends than his house can hold, yet he insists on thinking that he’s not rich. When, through no fault of his own, he finds himself facing disgrace and scandal, he despairs and considers a permanent solution to his temporary problem.
As a foil for the compassionate and big-hearted George, Wonderful Life gives viewers Mr. Potter, a curmudgeon who could probably out-Scrooge Ebenezer himself. Potter is an unscrupulous banker who owns half of Bedford Falls and has designs on the other half. He’s gruff, stingy, and downright mean, plus he has absolutely no understanding of anything he can’t put a price tag on. (He’s so awful that he is listed as #6 on the American Film Institute’s list of movie villains.) His wickedness knows no bounds, but not everyone was taken with Potter as the villain. The FBI issued a memo the year after the film was released highlighting Wonderful Life as evidence of possible “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry” due to its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture.” Such a tactic, the FBI continued, “is a common trick used by Communists.” Perhaps, but given the fact that not a single banker helming any of the financial institutions that drove America’s economy off its axis around 2008 has seen the inside of a jail cell, you have to admit that Potter is less of a caricature than we might like to think. (By the way, Lionel Barrymore thought Donna Reed was exaggerating her farm girl background. He famously bet Reed that she couldn’t actually milk a cow. Reed claimed it was the easiest $50 she ever made.)
If you click here, you can see Saturday Night Live‘s “lost footage.” Funny, but you can see the temptation George must’ve felt. (caption for video)
It takes a slightly bumbling angel to show George that no, life wouldn’t be better if he had never been born. In fact, the charming town of Bedford Falls would be a dump and people would – well, let’s just say they wouldn’t be the people they are. (Well, except for Potter. He’d be who he is, only more so.) Turning George around is an assignment for Clarence the angel who, in two hundred years, hasn’t managed to win his wings. He might not be the best angel (he only has the rank of “Angel Second Class”), but he’s the right angel at the right time. And, being a Capra film, we hear the ringing of a bright Christmas bell as Clarence succeeds in his mission and gains his reward.
The movie flopped when it was first released and really got its success in a roundabout way. Due to an oversight, the film’s copyright lapsed in 1974, which meant that for the next twenty years, anyone who wanted to could show Wonderful Life without having to pay royalty fees for the privilege. Television networks showed the film over and over and over throughout the Christmas season and Wonderful Life became imprinted on the American psyche.
George discovers it’s all been real.
And why not? We all want to matter; to believe that we make a difference in a world that often seems too big and impersonal to care about the troubles of one person. Wonderful Life reminds us that, while we may not see the impact we’re making on the world, we can rest assured that we’re making one. And that is both a legacy to cherish and a fate to make us shudder. Whether cherishing or shuddering wins out on any given day – well, that depends entirely on us, doesn’t it?
And no, Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street are not named for the characters in Wonderful Life. Sorry to disappoint and I kind of wish they had been. But apparently, Jim Henson just thought Bert looked like a “Bert” and that Ernie looked like an “Ernie.”
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.