I had this year’s introduction all written in my head—that’s how I write, you know—and then discovered hat it was what I wrote last year. No wonder it seemed so obvious. Well, never mind: there are still plenty of new matters to consider.
The main one is that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a Thanksgiving film as much as it is a Christmas story. In the end, it is all about being thankful and grateful for life, family, friends, being lucky enough to live in the United States, and avoiding bitterness and regret. George Bailey is a good man who is nearly destroyed by bitterness, anger, frustration and regret, and Frank Capra, who directed and partly wrote the screenplay, is telling us that this is no way to live, or even survive. It’s a tough lesson: I have been tempted many times to fall into that trap. Regular readers here have seen me do it. Like George, I often feel like I didn’t achieve and experience what I could have, that my choices too often didn’t pan out, that I barely missed the breaks that I needed when I most needed them. I feel this way even though my father constantly lectured me, really all the way through our relationship, never to fall into George’s pit of despond. As long as you’re breathing, he said, there is always opportunity and hope. Reflecting on what might have been is foolish, depressing and paralyzing.
Ironically, Capra’s fable shows a man for whom revelations of what might have been are decisive evidence that his life, however disappointing to him, nonetheless had meaning. “It’s A Wonderful Life” is perhaps the first screen time travel parable, a forerunner of “Back to the Future,” and anticipated chaos theory long before Edward Lorenz figured out how chaos works. Harry’s toast at the finale, as I wrote last year,
states a life truth that too many of us go through our own lives missing. What makes our lives successful (or not), and what makes makes our existence meaningful is not how much money we accumulate, or how much power we wield, or how famous we are. What matters is how we affect the lives of those who share our lives, and whether we leave our neighborhood, communities, associations and nation better or worse than it would have been “if we had never been born.” It’s a tough lesson, and some of us, perhaps most, never learn it.
I’m not sure I have learned it yet, to be honest with myself. Intellectually, perhaps, but not emotionally.
I just watched the film again today; every time I notice something new, which is reflected in the updated guide below. I am also convinced that this is the greatest, riches, most complex ethics movie of all time. “A Man For All Seasons” was long my winner in this category, but having watched that film too again recently, it doesn’t measure up to Capra’s masterpiece. Recalling the the real Thomas More burned heretics alive rather takes the sheen off Paul Scofield’s marvelous performance.
I also realized that this is very much an adult film. Kids don’t get it; indeed, I wonder if anyone under 40 really does. That makes it a strange Christmas movie. I grew up without seeing the film; the period when it was sold at junk prices to local TV stations which then resuscitated it reputation by wide exposure (I live when that happens) began while I was in college. Now that I think of it, I don’t know if my son has seen the movie. The black-and-white film block for so many younger Americans is a genuine obstacle to both cultural literacy and ethical instruction, and no, Ted Turner’s colorized version of IAWL doesn’t help, since it stinks.
Last year I wrote—and this was one of the points I had forgotten that I had made in last year’s introduction—
This movie’s intended message needs to be considered and taken to heart in 2021. Frank Capra, the movie’s director, designed the film to explain why it’s a wonderful country we live in. It may be that more and more vocal and powerful people want to send the opposite message today than ever before.
Tragically, it is definitely true that more vocal and powerful people want to send the opposite message today than even last year. Show them the movie, and all they will do is count black faces: yup, the only black resident of Bedford Falls appears to be the Baileys’ maid. Clearly, that means that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is just one more relic of systemic racism, and should be ignored and forgotten.
A society that can or will no longer learn from “It’s a Wonderful Life” is doomed to creeping stupidity and confusion. Ethics Alarms presents this annual ethics guide in the hope that we have not reached that desperate state yet.
1. “If It’s About Ethics, God Must Be Involved”