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It's a Wonderful Life (1946)


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At last I have my say on this subject!

My six-year slow boil on this topic has at last bubbled over in my new essay at First Things defending It's a Wonderful Life against its iconoclastic critics, including Smith, Jamieson and especially Deenan, whose argument was recently recapitulated in First Things (the immediate impetus for my new essay).

Like most good lies, these claims are half true. Capra’s film is much darker than its popular image; and the darkness is far from confined to the ruthless Mr. Potter and Pottersville. George Bailey is a deeply flawed hero, and while the case against Bedford Falls may be somewhat overstated, George isn’t wrong to want to shake the dust of his “crummy little town” off his feet…

But the debunkers don’t stop there. Kamiya’s defense of Pottersville leads to such inanities as these: “Dime-a-dance joints promote bonhomie. Prize fights and strip clubs provide weary citizens with much-needed catharsis. And a pawnshop makes it possible for those temporarily short on funds to participate in the full range of the community’s activities.”

Smith’s rant is the most transparently facile. Whatever problems Bedford Falls has with “drunks, child beaters, vandals and racial and sexual harassers,” would there be less of all this in Pottersville, or more? Smith waxes puritanically moralistic about minor vandalism (George and Mary throwing rocks at the old Granville place), yet when it comes to a banker maliciously absconding with a client’s deposit funds, the strongest word Smith can bring himself to use is “unethical.” (Smith actually claims Potter breaks no laws.)

Jamieson rightly highlights all that George gives up: world travel, higher education, big-city engineering. Yet he glosses over the film’s central contention that “relinquishing his dreams” has been for George (disappointments and failures notwithstanding) part and parcel of a life well lived. Heroically putting others first, George has both accomplished and gained much of lasting value… (To Jamieson’s characterization of George’s wife as “oppressively perfect,” I can only say that a man who can contrive to be “oppressed” by Donna Reed’s luminous Mary Hatch Bailey will never lack occasions for “oppression” in life.)

In a welcome contrast to other revisionist critics, Deneen abhors Pottersville and celebrates Bedford Falls. His brief against George Bailey is not that he saves Bedford Falls, but precisely that he “destroys” it…

Deneen’s target is not Bedford Falls, but Bailey Park: a “modern subdivision of single-family houses” with “no trees, no sidewalks, no porches, but instead wide streets and large yards with garages.”…

While I’m sympathetic to the urban-design concerns Deneen invokes, it’s easy to nitpick about the specifics of his case: Trees both large and small can be seen in Bailey Park, and porches also. As for sidewalks, landscaping and such is clearly ongoing, and I see no reason to suppose they aren’t coming.

Even granting the general applicability of Deneen’s critique of Bailey Park’s incipient suburban sprawl, what are we to make of the charge that George “destroys” Bedford Falls? Obviously George doesn’t literally raze pedestrian-friendly downtown Bedford Falls in order to build his automobile-friendly subdivision. The construction of Bailey Park presumably entails leveling many trees, but the tree-lined avenues Deneen celebrates suffer no greater damage than a nasty gash to one tree from an automobile accident…

Deneen’s main point seems to be that downtown Bedford Falls has communitarian virtues lacking in Bailey Park. But this is a somewhat misleading comparison. Bailey Park wasn’t built for former residents of downtown Bedford Falls, but for former renters of the slums of Potter’s Field.

Strangely, these slums don’t figure in Deneen’s consideration of the social vitality of Bedford Falls absent George’s actions. The real dilemma is not Bedford Falls with or without Bailey Park, but Bedford Falls with a) more people “living like pigs” in teeming slums in Potter’s Field, or with b.) more proud homeowners living in “dozens of the prettiest little homes you ever saw” in Bailey Park. George, in one of the film’s most famous monologues, argues for the latter; Deneen doesn’t engage this argument.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Your refutation of those inane arguments is compelling.

But, neverthless, I still don't like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. And "not like" may not even be an appropriate description... I have a visceral hate reaction toward this film that I cannot wholly understand or dissect. I actually looked up this thread in December, shortly after trying to view the film with my wife (who has always enjoyed it). I only made it about fifteen or so minutes in before leaving the room. I tried writing a post as to why this film makes me so angry--I think I can safely say in this case, this is mostly an "it's me, not you" situation here--but failed. One day I hope I'll succeed, if only for my own sake.

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Whoa, whoa. First Things? Nice! Now I have to find time to read the article. :)

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Your refutation of those inane arguments is compelling.

Thanks.

But, neverthless, I still don't like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. And "not like" may not even be an appropriate description... I have a visceral hate reaction toward this film that I cannot wholly understand or dissect. I actually looked up this thread in December, shortly after trying to view the film with my wife (who has always enjoyed it). I only made it about fifteen or so minutes in before leaving the room. I tried writing a post as to why this film makes me so angry--I think I can safely say in this case, this is mostly an "it's me, not you" situation here--but failed. One day I hope I'll succeed, if only for my own sake.

Heh. Really I wanted this to be part of a larger piece celebrating the film's virtues, but I didn't have the space here. And I wouldn't have convinced you anyway.

Your vehement response to the film is puzzling to me, I admit — speaking as one who has appreciated the film since my youth and grown to love it as an adult. My friend Mark Shea, blogging on my essay, writes:

I simply cannot grasp the mentality that would dislike this film. I’m reminded of Auden’s remark that he could not trust the literary judgment of anybody who disliked The Lord of the Rings. I think of Chesterton’s comment somewhere to the effect that there is, in every human heart, a thing that likes sunshine, fresh air, the sound of wind in the trees, and the laughter of children. That thing, he said, loves Dickens. He took it as a basic sign of health. I regard love for “It’s a Wonderful Life” in much the same way. Is it s a flawless film? Of course not. But the instincts of the film (and frankly, of Capra’s moral vision in all his films) is just basically healthy and oriented toward the Good. To dislike it seems a lot more like a judgment against the critic than against the film.

My sympathies are with this perspective, even if, given my respect for you, I would slightly moderate the language. smile.png

Whoa, whoa. First Things? Nice! Now I have to find time to read the article. smile.png

Thanks! Let me know when you do.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Heh. Really I wanted this to be part of a larger piece celebrating the film's virtues, but I didn't have the space here. And I wouldn't have convinced you anyway.

Your vehement response to the film is puzzling to me, I admit — speaking as one who has appreciated the film since my youth and grown to love it as an adult. My friend Mark Shea, blogging on my essay, writes:

I simply cannot grasp the mentality that would dislike this film. I’m reminded of Auden’s remark that he could not trust the literary judgment of anybody who disliked The Lord of the Rings. I think of Chesterton’s comment somewhere to the effect that there is, in every human heart, a thing that likes sunshine, fresh air, the sound of wind in the trees, and the laughter of children. That thing, he said, loves Dickens. He took it as a basic sign of health. I regard love for “It’s a Wonderful Life” in much the same way. Is it s a flawless film? Of course not. But the instincts of the film (and frankly, of Capra’s moral vision in all his films) is just basically healthy and oriented toward the Good. To dislike it seems a lot more like a judgment against the critic than against the film.

My sympathies are with this perspective, even if, given my respect for you, I would slightly moderate the language. smile.png

Well, as I say, I think the problem with IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and myself is more my problem than the film's (so Shea's comment that a dislike for it speaks more to the critic's failings than the film's probably holds). I'll do my best to touch upon what I find so agonizing about IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE in a few sentences:

When George Bailey stares into the abyss of despair, what brings him back to life is a narrative of his own goodness. But for people like me, who have ended up at similar dark places (and are still frequently haunted by that darkness) without having that narrative of personal goodness to fall back on, watching IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE becomes painful because the comparison between myself and George Bailey makes that abyss seem even more overwhelming. It's easy, even though it's unfair (wrong, even), to resent George Bailey for that, or at least to resent what George Bailey has, but I nevertheless do.

So, in keeping with this, I find much more to personally embrace in Ebenezer Scrooge's story than I do in George Bailey's.

Edited by Ryan H.
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That is a fascinating response. Thanks, Ryan.

I have some thoughts in response to that, but I've more than had my say for now, so I'll just be quiet and kind of let your comments breathe for awhile.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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A lot of people quote Auden's remark about how he couldn't trust the literary judgment of anyone who didn't like The Lord of the Rings. Much less quoted is Tolkien's response that this was absurd, that no book could be made an arbiter of literary judgment, and one like his least of all.

Auden was wrong and Tolkien was right. No work can be used as a litmus test for good taste, ever. And least of all one like It's a Wonderful Life, which is so rooted in a complex historical/cultural setting, which takes sides in so many social questions, which has such a particular, and problematic, theology and philosophy behind it, and which has such a strong emotional/sentimental flavor.

I love It's a Wonderful Life, but an attitude like Ryan's is much easier for me to understand than one like Mark Shea's.

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Thanks, Rushmore. That's a valuable contribution, though it doesn't at all shake my fondness of the Auden line, or my willingness to use and adapt it. I hadn't heard Tolkien's rejoinder before, but it's both perfectly sensible and perfectly in keeping with Tolkien's personality; it is also, of course, what any sane writer ought to say about his own work. Nevertheless, Auden's dictum is defensible too.

For one thing, Auden didn't say The Lord of the Rings was an "arbiter" or "litmus test" of "good taste." It was a statement about his own trust, not about good taste. I don't necessarily have to trust the judgment of everyone who might possibly be adjudicated by (per impossibile) some hypothetical, neutral standard to have "good taste."

Whose judgement I trust or don't trust is partly about me and the things I care about. If it turns out that you dislike many of the books (or films) that are the most important to me, while the books (or films) that you are most passionate about leave me cold, how likely is your literary judgment (however "good" your taste might be by some neutral measure) to be useful, and in that sense trustworthy, to me?

I suppose most of us use shorthand semi-canonical profiling like this, and rightly so. Suppose you tell me you loathe, say, The Passion of Joan of Arc, A Man Escaped, A Man for All Seasons, My Neighbor Totoro and Of Gods and Men. You might have critically defensible reasons for your opinions, but as interesting as your arguments might be in the abstract, I will never, ever trust your recommendation of a film the way I would someone whom I have found to be generally convergent with me on certain works of personal "canonical" significance. Certainly not unless there is some larger set of circumstances that compellingly counter-balances the prima facie evidence for distrusting your judgment.

Following the above line of thought, it seems to me reasonable to suppose that Auden was speaking both hyperbolically and in shorthand. I suppose what he meant might be slightly more strictly paraphrased "If anyone dislikes The Lord of the Rings, I shall regard it as a major strike against the trustworthiness of his judgment."

Going a bit further, in more directions than one: "I can imagine someone disliking The Lord of the Rings — but it seems to me that the most likely reasons for doing so, in our current cultural climate, involve dislike of things that I think are good and wholesome, or attachment to things that I think are superfluous or unhealthy."

Here is a work that offers readers like me, as a spring in the desert, great draughts of what is so profoundly lacking in the literary climate of our day. If you don't like it, is it not likely that, with respect to what this work has to offer, you prefer the desert, or even that you find water somehow noxious in itself? How could I trust someone who feels that way?

I see no reason to assume that Auden wouldn't give a fair hearing to an honest attempt to articulate the basis of a negative reaction to LOTR, as I gave to Ryan's attempts to articulate his dislike of IAWL. At the end of the day, though, Auden must suppose that a person who dislikes LOTR is somehow missing the mark in some significant way — is either unwilling or unable to appreciate and benefit from its particularly potent distillation of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. That, with appropriate caveats to epistemological and critical humility, is more or less how I feel about IAWL, I guess.

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Excellent post, Ryan.

The first time I can recall ever hearing about It's a Wonderful Life, it was in a Time magazine article which asked, as a metaphor for something else, how different the film might have been if Bailey's existence had actually made people's lives *worse* rather than better. This has probably always coloured my view of the film, and my belief that people tend to identify with Bailey as though his goodness were naturally somehow theirs (just as, I suppose, his put-upon-ness were also theirs) -- and I think your comments dovetail with that.

(Oh, wait, I think this might be the Time article in question...)

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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The first time I can recall ever hearing about It's a Wonderful Life, it was in a Time magazine article which asked, as a metaphor for something else, how different the film might have been if Bailey's existence had actually made people's lives *worse* rather than better. This has probably always coloured my view of the film, and my belief that people tend to identify with Bailey as though his goodness were naturally somehow theirs (just as, I suppose, his put-upon-ness were also theirs) -- and I think your comments dovetail with that.

I can't speak to how people generally "tend to" identify with George. I can only report that I for one see George's example (despite his acknowledged shortcomings) as an aspirational ideal. As I said six years and seven pages ago, George Bailey, unlike Luke Skywalker, is a hero to me. ("Forget Santa Claus. I want to believe in George Bailey.")

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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When George Bailey stares into the abyss of despair, what brings him back to life is a narrative of his own goodness. But for people like me, who have ended up at similar dark places (and are still frequently haunted by that darkness) without having that narrative of personal goodness to fall back on, watching IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE becomes painful because the comparison between myself and George Bailey makes that abyss seem even more overwhelming. It's easy, even though it's unfair (wrong, even), to resent George Bailey for that, or at least to resent what George Bailey has, but I nevertheless do.

So, in keeping with this, I find much more to personally embrace in Ebenezer Scrooge's story than I do in George Bailey's.

Ryan, A&F threads that get long can get repetitive, and I know that I don't usually (ever) go back and read the whole thread, so I apologize if this is a repeat. Given that response, I recommend Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen and/or The Miracle Woman. Both deal with characters confronting doubts not just about the world or God (as, I might argue George does) but about themselves, their own certainties or their own purity. I have some comments about General Yen at my blog, and Katherine Richards writes about these two films in Volume II of F&S in Masters of World Cinema.

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"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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