The last half-hour of Frank Capra‘s It’s A Wonderful Life (’46) always gets me deep down. I don’t really like the film (or any Capra creation for that matter) but my throat always tightens when Jimmy Stewart‘s distraught George Bailey begs Clarence the Angel for another chance — “Please, please…I want to live again.”
Movies like It’s A Wonderful Life are good for the heart and soul, no question. It’s a sappy film on one level but a very dark one besides, and I admire the ballsiness that it took to send nice-guy Stewart to a snow-covered bridge in order to commit suicide, and then whip it all around so he ends up in a joyful embrace with his family and friends. (Kudos to screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, whose work Capra tweaked to some extent.)
That said, there’s a passage in David G. Allan’s CNN.com piece about this much-loved classic that I feel like quibbling with.
“The big life lesson from this eminent Christmas perennial comes late in the film,” Allan writes, “and delivered straight from heaven. ‘Each man’s life touches so many other lives,’ explains Clarence. ‘When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?‘”
Well, in the scheme of It’s A Wonderful Life, yeah, but in actuality, not really. Or not as much as Capra or Stewart would have us believe.
For no matter how selfless or charitable or open-hearted a person may be, regardless of how many good or noble acts he/she may be responsible for, the churn and swirl of life will always win out. The constant cycle of birth and death and come-what-may happenstance is persistent, inexorable and unstoppable, and whatever lies in store that is good or bad, it will eventually happen on its own steam.
Essentially good, fair-minded, hard-working people will always be balms for their communities and families and whatnot and thank God for that, but no single life has ever been as central and influential as George Bailey’s. One way or another, the shit that may happen or not happen will eventually happen or not happen. Spiritual water always finds its own level. Fates are fulfilled, and chapters need to conclude in order for succeeding chapters to begin.
There is so much more to the cosmic scheme than was ever dreamt or imagined by the philosophy of Frank Capra, it’s not even funny.
The only exception to this rule, I feel, is in the negative, such as “what if Adolf Hitler had been hit by a Munich streetcar in the 1920s? Would another charismatic fascist fiend have eventually taken his place and led Germany to doom in the early to mid ’40s?”
Or “what if, God forbid, the triumvirate of Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Paul Ryan were to somehow meet with an unfortunate fate?” Would the U.S. still be plunged into all-but-certain instability and God-knows-what-threatening-scenarios between 1.20.17 and 1.20.21? Or is this shared fate locked in no matter what? Is the Trump horror something that needs to happen, regardless of the misery and rage that is likely to be spread around in healthy doses?
I wonder what Clarence would say about all this. Are you listening, Clarence? Is it somehow better or, you know, more cosmically benevolent or even-handed to just let Mr. Potter turn Bedford Falls into Pottersville and let our mass fate fulfill itself? Help me, Clarence…I need to know. I think we all do.
There’s one passage in Allan’s article that I agree with 100%, and which actually thrilled me when I read it. It’s a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke — “Hier zu sein ist so veil” or “to be here is immense.”