I consider Christmas Story a humble work of genius. It is the only Christmas movie we ritually gather together to watch, but that is only because I have seen my other favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, so many times that there is no need for me to be in the room while it plays. These days I sit somewhere else doing something else, and as I overhear various lines the entire scene replays in my head, in great detail.
I used to just enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life, but somewhere I read an essay that pointed out that Jimmy Stewart’s greatest performances rested critically on an astonishing ability to play both to and against type—in a single movie, sometimes in a single scene, Stewart could both fully inhabit his aw-shucks persona and then add something else, something different, often something creepy. Rear Window had a touch of this, Vertigo so much of it that I can barely listen to Bernard Herrmann’s score anymore, much less watch Stewart’s performance.
The essay suggested that It’s a Wonderful Life ended up being much more than a schmaltz-fest because of the edge that Stewart adds to his portrayal of George Bailey, particularly in the stretch of story where George thinks that Uncle Billy’s mistake is going to destroy the life he has slowly and painfully built for himself in Bedford Falls. Easygoing George is suddenly not so easygoing, in fact he is angry and vindictive and hateful. It’s hard to watch as he lashes out at his wife and children before running off to beg Mr. Potter for help, then stumbles into the night to get drunk and finally kill himself. As Stewart plays him, George has suddenly lost any claim he ever had to being a nice guy.
This year I was thinking about George as a helpful example in understanding exactly how far our obligations go to those we love, especially those we love because of their relationship to us—father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister. It’s hard enough to love George on that Christmas eve when he snapped, but many did and it was a large part of snapping him back. Consider, though, if George had not only snapped but stayed there. How hard would it have been to love him for a week, or a year, or the rest of his natural life? Who would have had the right to distance themselves from him, and after how long, and who would have been obliged to stick with him to the end?
I was thinking about this as the movie began in the next room. As I half-listened to the dialog, I found myself—well, somewhat irritated with George. Sure, he did good things along the way, but it seemed to be solely out of a sense of duty, not for the sake of any joy he found in doing them. He had a strong sense of what was right—saving his brother, keeping the druggist from poisoning a customer, agreeing to take over the building and loan—but time and again he seemed to just accept his lot begrudgingly rather than embracing it cheerfully. George’s real enthusiasm was reserved for his vision of finally breaking free of Bedford Falls and his obligations there, and going off to do what he wanted to do for a change.
Maybe this element of Stewart’s portrayal is obvious to the rest of the world, but I had never noticed it before. It suddenly became clear to me during the scene where George hears that Mary has come home to Bedford Falls and he goes over to visit her, sort of. All the while he is there he is incredibly rude—hilariously so, but still flat-out rude, making self-centered fun of everything that Mary holds dear, to the point where she tells him to get lost and he storms out. It was then I realized that, up to this point, I barely liked George Bailey. I certainly admired his bravery and his sense of responsibility, but I didn’t care for his cynical wise-cracking and his condescending attitude to the friends and family and traditions that surrounded him, treasures he was ready to jettison in an instant.
George comes back to retrieve his hat, and finds Mary on the phone with Sam Wainwright, another suitor (sort of). Finally he gives in to his love for Mary, but not without first saying this to her as he embraces her:
Now you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics! I don’t want any ground floors! And I don’t want to get married ever to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do! And you’re… and you’re…
And of course they kiss, and he proposes, and they get married. But it was that “I want to do what I want to do!” that really got me. George is a man who has at best struck a truce with reality, who is willing to submit to circumstances but is far from being at peace with them. Next he tries to escape with Mary, but the run on the building and loan crushes that last attempt to flee, and he settles in to live a smaller life in Bedford Falls.
The fact that he has never found peace over his lot makes his later encounter with Mr. Potter especially cruel. In trying to entice George into abandoning the building and loan and come work for him, Potter describes his own view of George’s trajectory, which I think is awfully close to how George sees it in his more bitter moments:
Now, if this young man of twenty-eight was a common, ordinary yokel, I’d say he was doing fine. But, George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He’s an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man, who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan, almost as much as I do. A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man…the smartest one of the crowd, mind you, a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he’s trapped. Yes, sir, trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters.
Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?
Notice that George does not disagree with anything Potter says. His response is simply, “Oh, what’s your point, Mr. Potter?” Even when he ends up repudiating Potter’s offer, it isn’t because he thinks Potter has mischaracterized his life, but because he sees accepting his lot as the only way to protect others from Potter’s evil.
Once I understood that George could soldier on, being agreeable and a good husband and sacrificially helpful to others, while at the same time resenting his lot in life, it made the scene where George loses it that much more powerful to me—intolerable, really. Especially the bit when Uncle Billy tells him he has lost the money:
Where’s that money, you silly, stupid old fool?! Where’s that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal, and prison! That’s what it means. One of us is going to jail! Well, it’s not gonna be me.
Now I think we see what the darker side of George has thought all along of Uncle Billy and Bedford Falls and the whole miserable mess. The darker side is in control from this point up to where George finally prays that he might live again, and it is an uncomfortable, even scary thing to watch. It is an overwhelming relief when God grants George not only life but peace, an ability to appreciate his life and family and friends for the good and satisfying thing that it is.
I admire Jimmy Stewart for his ability to mix the light and dark sides of a conflicted character in his portrayal of George Bailey, and his willingness to do so on the screen. But I’m thinking more and more that the ending is a movie ending. There was nothing in George’s actual situation that could have resolved things happily; short of God choosing to intervene dramatically as he did, it is likely that George’s dark side would have triumphed, and he would have been cynical and bitter through and through until the day he died.
Which gets me back to my original question, the one I’m still pondering: Who among George’s friends and family would have had the right to distance themselves from him, and after h
ow long, and who would have been obliged to stick with him to the end?