My earliest memory of loving a movie is sitting on my mom’s bed with my brother watching “Lassie Come Home.” Both of us were sobbing. I think I was 7 years old, and I had just learned the pleasure of sentimentality.
I loved drinking in and savoring the melodrama of a story that ended well, shamelessly exploiting every emotion it could, magnified tenfold because it involved a dog.
There is a role in this world for sentimentality. It’s not the sort of thing that English profs and the well-read celebrate, but it is the sort of thing that comforts us. The world needs some marshmallows and sweat pants, happy endings and Kleenex commercials, sappy movies tied up with string.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is not one of those movies. Every time I hear someone chastise Frank Capra, and it’s usually because of this movie, I’m torn between my lecture on the importance of sentimentality and my rant on why “It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t sentimental. This post is the latter.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a movie about acceptance. There is a sweetness to it, carried gracefully by Donna Reed. But the bitterness that Jimmy Stewart shoulders is the heart of the movie.
George Bailey’s is a story of sacrifice, mostly against his will. He doesn’t save his brother from drowning because he wants to. He saves him because he has to. He takes over the savings and loan because the cards fall and there is no one else.
George’s life is one frustration after another. He longs for travel and adventure. The people around him find travel and adventure. His brother is a war hero. George stays home in a small town doing small town things because he lost his hearing saving his younger brother.
George sacrifices so that other people can embody the dreams that will never come true for him. This is not an identity that George embraces, either. Even his love for Mary is an against-his-will sort of love.
Other people pay him back by boxing his injured ear and losing his money, stealing from him even the ability to save himself. He’s “rescued” from killing himself by a hapless angel who proves to him that his dreams were never meant to be.
Clarence, second class angel, replays George’s life and hammers home the reality of what life would have been like without George. We learn from this fantasy the exact nature of sacrifice. Giving up his dreams is the linchpin of other people’s dreams taking flight.
George is a cog in the wheel. It’s not that his own dreams and longings are inconsequential. It’s that giving up his dreams and letting go of his ambitions is critically linked to helping others live their own.
Even for Clarence, Angel, Second Class. George must eventually accept this story of his life and embrace his sacrificial role in order for Clarence to get his wings.
I suppose that the last scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a happy one for some. People seem to understand, perhaps have always understood, how much they owe George.
Younger brother Harry is still the hero, though. He flies in at the last moment to a crowd’s murmurs and shouts. He toasts his brother, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
If there is sentimentality, it is in these last five minutes. Other people (and angels) understand the richness in George’s life
For me, and I think for George, however, the lesson of this story is one of acceptance. Some of us live our dreams. Some of us make it possible for others to live their dreams. Peace comes in understanding and accepting who we are.
That is not sentimental. It is a story that Capra told many times. Real people face reality and are changed by it. Capra’s stories are not about the captains of ships, but about the waves that teach us to roll along and give in.
George Bailey is no idealist. He is a dreamer who has to give up his dreams and accept the reality of his life. Peace for George Bailey comes when he gives in and understands that his life is about sacrificing his dreams for others.
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