It’s a Wonderful Life” aired again on TV recently, as it does pretty much every year around Christmastime. And whether you’ve actually watched it or not (and I do recommend you give it a chance), you probably know the story of George Bailey, whose life is upended one Christmas Eve when a big deposit from his bank goes missing, he contemplates suicide, and learns what his world would have been like without him around.
It’s a cracking film, made by the brilliant Frank Capra, who appears to have had pixie dust in his pocket, and it expands mightily on the short story that inspired it, “The Greatest Gift.” And like many great films it succeeds in large part because multiple generations have been able to interpret it on their own terms.
But this essay is not here to sing the praises of hearth, home and the beauty of having community rally around you. This is about why “It’s A Wonderful Life” is actually a horror movie.
Stay with me now.
In horror movies, good people (or at least mostly-good people) are assailed by forces beyond their control. They may or may not escape. Mostly, they don’t - or if they do they’re haunted for the rest of their lives. Everywhere they turn, the forces amassed against them are bigger, smarter, and more determined than they are, a combination that brings them down in the end.
Back to George Bailey, resident of a sweet little town called Bedford Falls. From the moment we meet him, we know he’s destined for greater things. He’s a good guy with a big heart who saves his brother (at a physical cost to himself), then saves his employer (a grief-addled pharmacist who writes the wrong prescription) from giving out medicine that would have killed someone. That’s three lives Bailey has in his “win” column before he even hits adulthood. If anyone should go out and become a world leader, it’s George Bailey.
That’s what he wants to do, too! As an adult, we first see Jimmy Stewart as Bailey ordering a giant suitcase that’ll carry all of his belongings while he goes around the world. And later on, he tells his future wife Mary, “I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m going to shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet. I’m going to see the world then I’m going to build things.”
Oh, George. In a horror movie, never express your hopes and dreams. They will then be enumerated so they can be taken from you.
Bedford Falls is a nice enough town, but young folks don’t really want nice. They want adventure, they want to spread their wings and take on the world. George, however, is doomed not to get that chance. Here’s the sequence of events that read like doors closing on his face:
Dad, who started the town’s Building and Loan, the only business in town somehow not under the thumb of the evil, wealthy Mr. Potter (think “The Simpsons’” Mr. Burns), has a heart attack. George, apparently the only competent human being in the town, has to take over the B&L and gives his college money to his brother Harry, with the promise that Harry will return and take over in four years.
Harry - the kid who owes his life to his big brother - returns with a fiancée and a better job offer with his future father-in-law and George again defers his dreams to let his brother go.
Stuck in town, he re-connects with local chick Mary. Yeah, they had a nice evening out a while back but since she’s become a little too Overly Attached Girlfriend, turning a passing phrase of his into a needlepoint portrait. Never mind, they get married and start having kids. Which in and of itself is not a bad thing - but it digs him in deeper rather than paves a path to his escape.
But wait: The honeymoon! Yes! He can see the world on his honeymoon with good egg Mary! But no: As they’re leaving town there’s a run at the banks and … you guessed it. The only way the Building and Loan can stay afloat and out of the hands of Potter is if they use their honeymoon money to keep it afloat.
Score: 3 lives saved, 2 bundles of cash doled out to ungrateful others. George Bailey: Zero trips out of Bedford Falls.
George, as you may guess, never leaves town. This is what happens to the non-survivors of a horror movie.
But this is before the movie’s real darkness descends! George has to live with the terrible doodle-headedness of Uncle Billy, who mislays a huge deposit (which Potter scoops up, never to be returned) that leads George to thoughts of suicide on a snowy bridge, prepared to end it all.
Capra isn’t done going dark: George is shown what life would have been like in Bedford Falls if he’d never been born. Welcome to Potterville, a lively town of whorin’, drinkin’, fightin’ and one dowdy librarian named Mary who apparently in all quantum universes that ever existed could only be happy if there was a George Bailey around. So she’s single, and sad (because: single) and freaks out when he approaches her on the street. It’s an uglification of the Bedford Falls we’ve been seeing (even if it is a bit more exciting) and that’s about where we reach the terrible truth of it all:
George, you ain’t getting out, even if you die.
I’m not alone in these thoughts, mind: Dan Seitz at Uproxx noted something similar in 2012 (and also brought up that in the original script kindly angel Clarence faced off with Potter and scared him into having a heart attack).
And in 2008 Wendell Jamieson wrote in the New York Times: ” ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.”
So this year, watch this well-written, ultimately terrifying film with some fresh eyes. Hide your kids. Put away your needlepoint portraits. And settle in to watch a good man get defeated, all while being convinced that he’s living a “wonderful life.”
Your mileage may vary, of course.
What’s your favorite horrible holiday film? Let us know here.
Between the Lines is on hiatus until mid-January - have a happy (or hellish) holiday season as you see fit, and see you then!