This has been percolating in my head since December 18th, when I read Wendell Jamieson's New York Times opinion piece on "It's a Wonderful Life." You might want to read it before you read further here.
I didn't know from Frank Capra's initially under-appreciated masterpiece before I moved to Chicago and met my Best Beloved. He introduced me to it, among the many reasons that his hat brim sparkles with supernovae.
I'm not even going to attempt to delineate the many reasons, or the ways in which I find this movie personally, critically, culturally and spiritually magnificent. Simply put, the movie is now extraordinarily important to me.
Now, if you've read this far, and read Jamieson's article, you can be pardoned for thinking to yourself, "Aha! She's going to inveigh at length about his snarky and oh-so-fashionably revisionist interpretation of the movie.
She's leaping to Capra's defense, and taking upon herself the mantle of neo-traditionalist lately abandoned by Christopher Buckley, to drip holiday-punch venom on the blasphemer."
Nope. No sir. Not in the slightest.
Well, perhaps in the slightest, because I am nothing if not marginally honest. When I first read through the column, I wanted to tear my hair, or his eyes, out.
You see, in this year of our lord 2008, I am tired unto death of cynics, or would-be cynics, or young snarks, or what-have-you's, telling me that not only has the emperor no clothes, but that he sold them to finance the meth habit of his pregnant junior high school-aged afternoon delight. It's a bone-deep weariness, because it's had a long time to seep into my bones. It's not merely the wizened and hard-eyed opening decade of the 21st century, nor the staggering and slightly panicky buffoonery of the 20th century's final decade.
Quite honestly, what Jamieson said initially threw me back to the early 1980s. I was forcibly reminded of David Stockman (look him up, youngsters) and the rising of his smooth-haired ilk in the slouching dawn of the Reagan era - you know, the type of grey-suited prat who'd comment in interviews about the economy, or pieces in the National Review, that Bob Cratchit was actually well-paid for those days, and that he was the architect of his own hard times for allowing his wife to have that many children. That sort of dribbly-nosed swot, secure in the mistaken knowledge that all before him is dross, unless he himself pays for it.
Of course, in addition to being marginally honest, I am enthusiastically careless during first readings. I went back later and read Jamieson's words a second time. And I realized that he was, most probably, nearly as in love with the movie as I am. His last sentence was what I'd missed, along with what appeared, on second reading, to be ample evidence throughout the rest of the column that he was simply protesting too much.
By the time I read him through a second time, I had reason to thank him. Because, frankly, his observations were nothing new to me. Nor were they, or at least softer-hued versions of them, anything that I hadn't, heretically, thought myself.
After I read him, though, I started thinking about what George Bailey did with the rage he had, and whether its reality negated anything else in the story. No, it didn't, I finally realized. It made the story that much more real.
I had a whole bunch of thoughts like that slowly show up in my head after I read Jamieson. And I know there's an essay in there, being nurtured by those thoughts, and I may even write it someday, when I'm more intellectually disciplined that I am now.
What grew up first, however, was an exploration of what might have happened in Bedford Falls after we left.
No, not a story. I'm not that stupid. Just three vignettes.
The building was cold and drafty at the best of times, the high ceilings and ornamental columns of its main room conducive to nothing more than the slow leach of heat to the outside. Tonight it was, perhaps, colder than usual; he'd let the employees go early because it was Christmas Eve, and ordered the janitor to damp the furnace. He didn't care. He'd be warm enough with the fire his man had built up in the study's fireplace.
He rolled his chair closer to the hearth, and leaned as far as he could into the warmth, then looked back at his desk. The telephone hadn't rung, not for two hours. Not since that fool had banged on the window and screamed a greeting at him - crazed smile, five o'clock shadow and wild hair, no topcoat - then disappeared.
He had felt a sour glee at that point. It seemed obvious the man had lost his senses. But his heady victory had gradually ebbed in the dark and the silence, replaced with nagging questions and unsatisfied, fearful curiosity. Where were the sheriff and the examiner? Where were the reporters? He brought his fist to his mouth and scowled, resisting the urge to send his man to find out what was going on. He tried not to listen to the clock.
The fire died, and the room grew cold. He rolled himself around and back to his desk, retrieved the envelope he'd stuffed into a top drawer.
Eight thousand dollars. Such a small thing to him, and such a large and fatal weapon - he had thought - to his nemesis. Such a poison as would - he had thought - silence the fool and bring him to ruin in the eyes of the rabble.
He had thought.
Outside, the silence of the snowy evening gave way to something else. He heard snatches of song, the tinkle of a bell. For a fleeting moment, so quick a one that he could easily insist it had never been, he thought he heard his mother's voice. The music faded, and the laughter braided through it, and the bell.
He stayed where he was, his heart not yet ripe for the picking.
Ever since Laura (who laughed with, not at; who loved; who left too soon), the dream had been a recurring torment.
He would be walking down Main Street, a Main Street lined with people, everyone he knew. They would all be laughing. No one would speak to him. No one would let him in to the office. He would run to his home, and it would be empty, all the animals gone. He would wake, tears streaming down his face, with the memory of his brother's disapproving eyes.
(His brother had never had those eyes, of course. Nor had his sister-in-law, nor his wonderful, brave, boss of a nephew. They all loved him, and so he got through with strings on his fingers, and the occasional snootful.)
When he lost the money, it was as if he had stepped into the nightmare. He had cried on his desk, the animals around him as he tried to remember where he'd left it, and tried to forget the fury in his nephew's face.
He wasn't a praying man - none of the men in his family were - but he felt as if a prayer had been answered when she knocked softly at the door and asked what had happened. Then she asked for his help, looked into his eyes and said it wasn't his fault. It took a heck of a woman to make him believe that, but he did, mostly. And off they went, making telephone calls, and telling those they called to call others, then knocking on doors in the snowy twilight, everyone telling everyone that his nephew needed their help. And everyone answering.
It was like a festival, or a deep breath of relief, in the crazy, crowded, happy front room at their house. He proffered his basket of loose bills like a vassal to his lord. It would have been enough for him. But while everyone was singing, and she was bringing out some unexpectedly welcome eggnog, someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned, and was brought into the tweedy, still slightly wet and doggy-smelling arms of his nephew.
The hug almost sank him, but he stayed afloat, grinning like a fool. He only had to sit down and fight the tears again when the younger man asked him - him - for forgiveness.
She had always known there was rage at his core. She didn't know where it came from or why it bubbled through the quirky humor and the odd decisions and the steady look in his eyes. But she never worried, because those things were the crucible through which he changed the rage, made it into something strong and good for her and the children. And somehow she had also known there was just enough fury in her own heart that he would trust her with his.
She held two secrets in that heart of hers.
The first? She had lied all those years ago, when she said she was happier home than in New York. She was only happy where he was, and if he'd given her the choice - home, or him on a tramp steamer and only a stone on which to lay her head - she'd have nicked her brother's shortest pair of dungarees, found some rubber boots and booked passage.
The second was that she knew his secret. Not the one everyone else thought he had. Everyone else thought he'd given up dreams of the world for her and for the family, for the family business. Even he still thought that, sometimes. For a few years she had thought so, too.
But she had grown to understand the truth. It was the other away around with that man. He wanted the National Geographic Magazine, yes he did, and he wanted to talk about coconuts (and she had made herself like the stuff for him), and dream about trains and aeroplanes and those blessed tramp steamers of his.
What he really wanted, though, were all those things from behind the solidity of Mr. Gower's counter, or his desk, or from under the counterpane on their bed. The look in his eyes when he'd walked, wet and angry and curious, into their leaking living room on their wedding night; that had been her first clue. Eventually she cottoned on to it.
She never told him, and when he came home this Christmas Eve in an uncontrolled panic, with the rage untransformed, she thought she had made a terrible mistake. She wasn't even sure what mistake (Him? This life? Herself?) but it seemed as if everything she thought she knew about him had been wrong.
Until she remembered the feel of his lips on her throat, the night he dropped the telephone and gave in to her. And she put aside her fear, and went to see his uncle. They would figure it out together.
And they did, and here they all were, and she was laughing and crying, and shepherding trays of coffee and eggnog to the flock that had gathered here.
She would shake later, but not in front of the children. She would do it in his arms, now that he had come back.
Merry Christmas, everybody. Happy New Year.