The Greatest Christmas Movie of All Time
I must preface this by saying that spoilers are sprinkled throughout, and anybody who has yet to see the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” should stop reading this and immediately go view it. Get the movie, grab a loved one, set them down, cuddle up, and just before you start the movie you look them in the eye and tell them to shut their mouths so you can experience and enjoy this movie with full concentration. Now you probably didn't actually tell them that because you should have stopped reading before you read that instruction, correct? Oh, you kept reading then? Right, seriously. Stop reading this now and get it watched. For those who've already seen it, go and get a glass of water whilst we wait for these guys to get caught up.
Welcome back everyone. Now that we are all prepared, and hydrated, let’s get into this. Of all the plethora of Christmas movies out there, a select handful seem to appear on almost every top ten list. The two I’ll be discussing here will be the much praised Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Frank Capra’s superior story, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I tipped my hand there, but I want you to know my opinion at the start so that you can follow my logic on why I find the story of George Bailey to be the perfect Christmas story, and a better overall message than the scared straight story of Scrooge.
The essence of the two stories are the same: During the Christmas season a man is confronted by a supernatural influence and is shown visions of how horrible life would be if they did not change their ways. Though they share this base outline, the main characters, and story approach are quite different. Though I enjoy the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol, be it animated, musicals, Muppets, or even my beloved Bill Murray masterpiece, Scrooged. I must admit though that in my viewings I find myself agreeing with Ebenezer Scrooge much of the time.
They all do a good job of painting him as a miserly, horrible person with no heart. I find, however, that when I dissect what he is actually thinking and saying I have trouble finding fault with it logically.
He’s not a warm, friendly person. Goodwill toward man is not a part of his thought process, but in essence he expects people to work for their rewards and believes in saving his money instead of wasting it. I understand he’s not the ideal human being but he never seemed totally wrong to me. Just a solitary man taking care of number one first and foremost. Still, the Christmas Spirit seemed fit to cure him of his ways and show him how bleak his future will be if he continues to be such a Scrooge. He’s shown his past, and present situation which gives him pause for reflection. Yet he only decides to change when he sees how he will die alone and basically burn in Hell for the wickedness of his not being generous.
George Bailey is quite a different person entirely. Very nearly the opposite of Scrooge, George is always thinking of others. He is a bright, brilliant person who sacrifices his potential and compromises his dreams for the sake of friends, family and the community. It turns the Christmas Carol story on its head. George starts out being what Scrooge would redeem himself to be by the end of his story. So why the need to be shown an alternate reality if he’s already behaving as one should? It’s because George Bailey is miserable because of his kind heart. He lives his life giving himself to others and shelving his wants, only to have circumstance after circumstance pin him down further from escaping his simple life. Because of this misery he decides the only way to sort out his life is to end it. Even in this, George is giving. Facing financial ruin, and only holding a life insurance policy with very little equity, he knows he’s worth more dead than alive. And he contemplates taking his life that others could benefit from making a claim on that policy.
The Scrooge in this movie is old man Potter. He is very much the Ebenezer archetype but I find myself again finding no fault in his logic or behaviour, though it certainly is not role model worthy. He even goes further in his wickedness by keeping money belonging to the Bailey Building and Loan when it was accidentally given to him by the horribly inept and worthless Uncle Billy. The movie makes no moral punishment for Potter, however, and He gets away with it Scott free. This, I found, makes the whole story much more real to me.
In these changes lies the perfection of this movie. The story isn’t about “be good or be punished”, it’s about being good for its own sake but then recognizing the good that comes from that. George isn’t visited by scary or stern ghosts telling him how horrible his is. Instead cinema’s most simple and gentle angel, Clarence Oddbody AS2, shows up to show him just how great a person he actually is. Reviewing the past is not done with George himself because he already knows how he lived. The review is cleverly done for the audience to learn to love George and pity him for being dragged down by everyone around him. As with Scrooge, George Bailey is shown a possible world that might be. Whereas Scrooge was shown how he would end up if he doesn’t change, with George we see what the world would be like had he never existed. He gets to see just how much he has helped shape and mould with his kindnesses. He sees whose lives he has saved and where they all would have ended up without him. He is not shown the penalty for a miserable life, he is shown the full value of living a wonderful life.
I much prefer this message as it is a major focus on letting the person choose to be good for goodness’ own sake. It also seems like the individual changing is not being forced or threatened into becoming someone they are not.
To further compare a theme, Ebenezer Scrooge is shown by Jacob Marley the chains he is burdened with for not helping his fellow man. He indicates that Scrooge’s horrible chains would be even longer still, with each additional year adding more and more links of oppression. With George Baily the chains are felt all throughout his life as one thing after another shackles him to his dinky little hometown of Bedford Falls. He feels them weighing him down and keeping him from escaping the monotony and obligation that has become his each and every day normality. But what he finds out in the end is that there were no chains keeping him from climbing out of his misery. They were the strongest of bonds, forged through his kindnesses and selflessness. These bonds were what supported him and kept him up when the world fell out from under him. George Bailey, the richest man in town.