Although mired in insignificance upon initial release, the final ascent of It’s a wonderful life It was almost always inevitable. For one thing, it stars Jimmy Stewart. On the other hand, like all the greatest Christmas literature, it contains an undercurrent of darkness. Such as Christmas carol or Charlie Brown’s birthdayIt deals with the death of human hopes as much as with their renewal. More importantly, the emotional punch grows, not diminishes, with rewatches over the years.
An icon of such established stature is an irresistible target, and the competition to come up with the final oxymoron takedown of the movie is now a sub-Christmas tradition in itself. Every year people write their vignettes about how Mr. Potter is the new urban guru or that Bedford Falls is full of narcissists or that George is a toxic narcissist or that Uncle Billy caused the financial crisis or Um, is the movie really depressing?, or high school gymnasiums that don’t actually have swimming pools underneath. Every year I read it and laugh, knowing the movie will bury them all.
But there was always one criticism I found hard to ignore: Mary’s problem. When George Bailey, after a life of thwarted ambitions and dreams of sacrifice, attempts suicide, faces ruin and disgrace at the hands of his transgressive enemies and inept friends, his guardian angel Clarence is sent to help him. In order to convince George that he actually had a “wonderful life” that it would be a crime to throw away, Clarence shows him what his city would have looked like had George not been born in it. So far, all is well and good.
Clarence shows George the life George has entered at a critical moment or that he has shaped by the cascading effects of his choices: the brother he saved from drowning in infancy, the pharmacist distracted by grief that prevented him from accidentally poisoning a child, and so on. Finally, George asks Clarence to show him his wife, Mary. “You won’t like it,” says Clarence. George is absent, Mary is an old maid, locking up the bookstore with her skirt suit and spectacles.
Aside from the dubious implication that the worst fate that can befall a woman is a single life as a small-town librarian, this scenario simply calls for faith. The idea that Mary, played by the luminous Donna Reed, who has been lighting up the screen with her charisma and warmth for the past hour and a half, would be short of suitors in George’s absence — is absurd. That she needs to save George from spinsterhood because his brother needs to save him from death is an insult. It adds an ugly note to Clarence’s contest of importance. Even in his most intimate partnerships, should George always and only reach out to others as a savior? If he’s out of the picture, Mary is most likely the wife of wealthy plastics maker Sam Wainwright, wrapped in a new mink coat and avoiding a life of toil, care, and George’s dark temper, I guess.
It was a flaw in the picture, I have to admit, that I didn’t even like the critics who brought it to my attention. At best, I could spin it as an implication that George was no uncomplicated hero, and that Clarence could only show him a version of reality he could bear—one in which not even his own nonexistence left him superseded by another. I have argued that the film is perfect, precisely because it shows an egoistic, self-pitying redemption, as well as a heroic vindication of his house-keeper and his people’s self-denying servant. In many stories, these roles are mutually exclusive. In life, and in this film, they coexist in tension, but without contradiction – such is the pathos of the human heart and its potential.
me I still believe this. But I no longer think it relates to Mary’s problem in the same way, nor do I stand by my earlier solution to the case. My opinion changed last year, when I had the chance to see me It’s a wonderful life On the big screen, in Madinaty Theatre. You may have noticed things differently over the years – that is, after all, one of the charms of the movie. Perhaps watching the movie as it was actually meant to be shown will open up a new vision. Either way, I found myself paying attention to one exchange I hadn’t witnessed before.
George: Mary Hatch, why on earth did you marry a man like me?
Mary: To avoid being an old maid.
George: You could have married Sam Wainwright or somebody else in town.
Mary: I didn’t want anyone else in town. I want my child to look like you.
The scenario that the counterfactual world presents us is explicitly foreshadowed by Mary’s hilarious, obviously silly, response, “To avoid being an old maid.” Once I realized that, however, it became my interpretive key to the later problematic scene.
From the beginning, it was Mary who chose George, not the other way around. In a scene from their childhood, she sits at the table and whispers in his bad ear, “George Bailey, I’m going to love you till the day I die,” while George, oblivious, hops for coconuts. They are reunited at the high school dance, her eyes fixed on him with the loving, ravenous sheen of a marital tiger. Throughout their bizarre and bittersweet courtship, she is the one who haunts him, much as Barbara Stanwyck haunts him in Mrs. EveKatharine Hepburn in raising a childOr Barbra Streisand What’s up, doctor? George, for his part, is as angry, protesting, and ultimately helpless as any of his peers. It’s a foolish chase relegated to the drama log, with George playing the stunt.
Mary could marry any man in town. She doesn’t want that. want george She takes George’s measure, and sees something in him that he does not see, and is perhaps only partially visible. What Mary sees in him reflects none of the failed visions that George has of himself.
Mary is the one who sees the potential of the old house from the beginning, Mary is the one who patiently acquires and restores it over the years. Mary is the one who sees the next bank rush as well as dissolving it, Mary is the one who offers the honeymoon money without wasting time either asking for permission or indulging in remorse. George’s life is shaped by a distinctive, recurring act: heroic deference to duty when circumstances demand it. But Maryam sees the bigger vision from the start. She is determined that George will hold the moon, even if she is the only one who can see it in the sky.
It is certainly a pleasure, but not unusual, that a famous and beautiful woman can marry a rich and popular man if she so chooses. It is uncommon to see the life and man she desires with so clear and uncanny certainty, to choose them in the teeth of discouragement with all its obvious imperfections, and to persist with determination in reflection in the face of hardships. It’s a wonderful life It is, in part, the story of someone who has become, kicking and screaming, against all intents and desires, a big man. Mary sees the big guy in George from the first, because she’s a big woman.
She, like George, is a very unusual person who operates under her own personal destiny. In the world without George, she didn’t get married not because she couldn’t, but because she didn’t want to. There isn’t a man of Mary’s size in town, and Mary Hatch doesn’t do anything simply because it’s what can be expected of her. Her story in this alternate reality is a sad one, but not one of passive submission to circumstances.
To choose such a woman and to know and love her is not easy. It is seeing Mary without him that breaks George enough to make him ask for life, for it is just her anger at him that sends him into the most desperate phase of his downward spiral. When he chases the surrogate Mary through the streets, his desperate cry is not “Mary! What have they done to you?” But “Don’t you know me? What happened to us?” If Mary does not know him, and if Mary does not see who he really is, then he must not really exist.
I would not, now, if I had the ear of Frank Capra, Jasper, and Martini in my hands and the studio at my command, to go back and alter the scenery which I once thought was the only major flaw in a perfect film. It is the climax of a great love story–between people with children, not enough money, frustrations, and shameful failures, as is the case with many great love stories. It is an acknowledgment of the unpredictable depths of a woman who is so easily categorized as a charming embellishment in her own story. But more importantly, it is central to the story Clarence tells George. For all the extraordinary and indispensable goodness that George does for others, what finally makes his life remarkable – terrifying and mysterious – is what has been done for him. After all, he never set out to win Mary Hatch.
It is the revelation that brings him back to his proverbial knees, begging for his life – crucially, still believing he faces ruin and disgrace.
George: Clarence! Clarence! Help me, Clarence. bring me back. bring me back. I don’t care what happens to me. Just take me back to my wife and children. Clarence, help me, please! Please! I want to live again!
But when he returns, there is neither desolation nor disgrace. Everyone in town has heard he’s in trouble, and everyone in town—all the people he’s served and saved over the years—jumped into action to get him out of his ordeal. The money appeared again at the eleventh hour, as if out of thin air, and not this time to save the building and the loan, but for him.
“Isn’t that cool?” says Uncle Billy. “Mary did it, George, Mary did it.”
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