Unlike your typical American, this was only the second time I’d seen the film, with the first being just five years or so ago. So no, for me this isn’t the annual Christmas tradition that it is for other people. Was more of a spontaneous indulgence instead.
Most likely you’re not aware. But the Frank Capra classic wasn’t originally conceived to be a “Christmas movie” per se but one where the second half sort of just happened to be set on Christmas Eve. But it could have just as easily been set on Thanksgiving or Memorial Day or even Halloween. I suppose this makes it something along the line of a Home Alone or Die Hard kind of holiday movie.
At the time of its release Capra described the movie’s focus as “the individual’s belief in himself” and intended it “to combat the modern trend toward atheism.” For this reason, the film intentionally stays clear of anything too religious. The story’s only supernatural element features guardian angels who are given earthly assignments where they aid in human predicaments for the explicit purpose of “getting their wings” and advancing the ranks of angel-ship.
Pretty much the only religious scene in the whole movie is near the end when lead character George Bailey prays to a god that he’s not entirely sure exists, “God, oh God… Dear father in heaven… I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope, and uh… Show me the way, O God.” He then gets cracked in the jaw by an angry townsman. Taking that as the answer to his prayer, George decides to kill himself. And that’s when his guardian angel Clarence intervenes, later said to be the real answer to his prayer.
But the movie makes it very clear that the only real reason Clarence was willing to help George is because he wanted to move to upper-level angelship. He wanted his wings. And though he continually looks toward the heavens in search of another way to move up… Please, there’s GOT to be another way to get these wings!… his prayers go repeatedly unanswered.
But never mind all the frustration encountered along the way. Eventually Clarence does get those wings. And George indeed comes to realize that the life he possesses is a wonderful one. One that, despite the disappointments and set-backs he repeatedly falls victim to and the cut-throat loses he feels defined by, is finally realized as a pretty great existence nonetheless. And a rather beautiful one at that.
A happy ending of glorious embrace.
The 1946 film was a devastating financial loss and largely considered a failure for some thirty years, a terrifying account of what happens when the American Dream hits reality and one is forced to either submit to the realities of broken aspirations or end it all by jumping off a cliched bridge into oblivion. But it was the movie’s backbone of angelic sentimentality that, depending on the perspective of the viewer, either pushed it over the edge into debilitating mush or saved it by providing a final feel-good uplift. It was that uplift which finally pushed through and won the day when in the 1970s a long-delayed cult-following arose out of nowhere and created for it a coveted space in the canon of cherished Christmas movies.
And now here we are today.
So what was my take away? And why am I writing this? When I sat down to watch this afternoon, I didn’t even remember the basic storyline but was just hoping for a light-hearted Christmas tale. And then, being the nerd I am, I had to look up more info online.
Well, I found the feel-good uplift. But it wasn’t in the angel’s actions, which were entirely motivated by his won self-promotion. It wasn’t in God, who was only named in George’s prayer and never even referenced elsewhere. The uplift wasn’t in the movie’s devout conservatives who were serving their Lord in generous acts of worship; there wasn’t a single religionist included in the entire cast.
The feel-good uplift came in the form of simple, regular, common, ordinary human beings who rose to the call and helped George out at the end of the movie. Not for their own benefit, but simply because he was a beloved part of their community and they loved him for it. Neighbors and locals, shopkeepers and businessmen, middle- and lower-class all alike. Even the owner of the town bar gave everything he had to help carry George through his struggle. Yes, the angel may have prevented George’s suicide, but even he was long gone by the time George returned home to find a bureaucratic mob waiting to haul him off to jail. No, in the end, when supernatural forces had vanished and George’s answered prayer had already expired, it was the good folk of his little town that stood by him to weather the storm.
The true value of Wonderful Life comes not in its three angels, two prayers, and a silent unseen god, all staged before a wonderful Christmas wonderland. Its worth comes in the rise of human community to selflessly help one’s neighbors in a bind. Its wealth is depicted in a lifelong series of relationships that intersect and weave together and truly care for one another irregardless of hardship and cost.
When I watched it for the first time, I was underwhelmed, to say the least. It’s theology was absolutely terrible, at least in any biblical sense. I struggled to find a truly Christmas message. And the film never even mentioned Jesus’s name. How was this supposed to be a Christmas movie!?
But now I see it. All that really binds Christmas together is in this film. Community and relationships. Family and friends. Sacrifice and courage. Even in the face of the harsh realities of life in the real world. And the movie reminds us that even when some of those cherished elements such as friends or finances go missing, we still find hope for a better day by… how did Capra put it… “believing in one’s self.” Even if Capra thought the angels would help stem the tide of atheism, it’s hard to see how this movie supports anything other than the most secular of Christmas hope and inspiration.
So as Christmas events and undertakings continue in the week ahead, make sure to celebrate Capra-style. Rather than encouraging your friends and family with silly prayers to selfish angels, turn them to the loved ones who surround. And look toward one another as by our selflessness and by our community, we build something that is truly a wonderful life.