Is it a Wonderful or Dysfunctional Life?

By Tim Gay

What makes “It’s a Wonderful Life” so wonderful, anyway? Why is it that every year around the holidays, millions of us watch this creaky old black-and-white melodrama of despair and redemption?

Let’s look a little closer at the story. Deep down, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is actually about dysfunctional living. Untreated alcoholism, co-dependency, nonviolent verbal spouse and child abuse, addiction to gambling — it’s all here in the Bailey household in Bedford Falls.

And no one deals with reality. Everyone from Clarence the Angel to pretty little ZuZu lives in a dreamy fantasy where someone else will save everyone from the bad times, and no one will acknowledge that the bad times are consequences of stupid decisions.

For the first half of the film, it’s your classic American White Anglo Saxon Protestant story of boy meets girl and boy drops his dreams of adventure to marry girl and accept the limited prospects of staying in the old hometown to run the family business. George dreamed of adventure, but alas, couldn’t pass the physical for The Great War. Mary, on the contrary, seemed quite intent on settling down in the old Granville House and having children, lots of children.

But by the second half of the movie, all hell breaks loose. If only George hadn’t protected his alcoholic uncle by keeping him employed at the Building and Loan. If only George hadn’t foolishly entrusted his non-bonded uncle with large sums of cash. If only word hadn’t gotten out that George’s drunken uncle lost the loot, and if only all those neighbors hadn’t made a run for their money. If only George had sought sound advice from a trusted legal advisor instead of trying to borrow money from greedy town meanie Mr. Potter.

But George did these things. Right before Christmas, too.

So how does George handle his problems? He hits the bottle.

Then he becomes verbally abusive with long-suffering Mary. He’s cranky with his kids. He even yells at little Janie, “Haven’t you learned that silly tune yet? You’ve played it over and over again. Now stop it! Stop it!”

George then proceeds to the neighborhood bar, and drinks more. He’s again verbally abusive, this time to his neighbors and his favorite bartender. George is sent away and drives drunk, only to crash the family Model T right into a tree.

And then, in the ultimate act of alcohol-induced self-pity, he decides jump off the bridge into the middle of an iceberg-infested raging river! If he had been sober and rational, George would have realized his tiny life insurance policy wouldn’t even begin to offset his debts, let alone support that big family.

Hallucinations are not uncommon for those who have drank vast quantities. But let’s take Angel Clarence as reality. This colonial-era relic happens to pluck George out of the icy torrent. But of course, Clarence has a hidden motive for his kindness — he’s desperate for angel wings.

George bemoans that the world would have been better off if he hadn’t been born. So Clarence concocts a Bedford Falls without George, called Potterville, named after the town meanie.

Potterville is actually an alluring burg of neon and new development, with what appears to be a booming vaudeville and nightlife district. It is reminiscent of the transformation of Times Sq. a few years ago.

In formerly Bedford Falls, George encounters many old friends. Mr. Gower the pharmacist has become a drunk, because he accidentally poisoned someone who would have been saved if George were around. George’s W.W. II hero brother didn’t live through a childhood sled accident, which George would have deflected if he were born. George’s mother runs a rooming house. And Mary chose not to marry, and instead became a librarian who wore thick glasses.

All this co-dependent narcissism leads George to realize that he really liked being born.

So back to reality. George leaves Clarence and bounds happily throughout Bedford Falls to those he left behind. He’s giddy and everyone thinks he’s drunk, which, considering how much he drank prior to the river plunge, just might be true.

Mary and the kids are still up and actively dysfunctional. Instead of running for the hills, they openly greet the verbally vicious father figure. And for reasons unknown, multitudes descend upon the house with baskets full of cold hard cash to keep the Building and Loan in business. Evidently, the insolvency didn’t drive the good citizens to deposit their funds in F.D.I.C.- or F.S.L.I.C.-insured institutions, but then again, that would be too dependent on New Deal policies.

So Mary, played by Donna Reed, never loses faith or her coiffure throughout the film. Imagine a remake of the film with a slight reversal — Mary Bailey, drunk after finding her husband’s uncle had lost thousands of dollars, attempts suicide to only find out she wanted to live. Anyway, Donna Reed’s perfect mother role in this film and her later television show may have led her to break out in the late 1960s as a founding member of Mothers Against the War in Vietnam.

And George, played by Jimmy Stewart, assumedly goes on through life, loaning money, putting kids through college, being a good old soul who may or may not drink too much.

But where is Clarence? The tinkling of a Christmas tree ornament is a signal to little ZuZu to tell us, “Look, Daddy! Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings!”

Come to think of it, that scene always brings a lump to my throat. Maybe it’s a wonderful life after all.

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