“It’s a Wonderful Life” is my least favorite film that my favorite actor (Jimmy Stewart) made — that’s not a dig, as it’s sort of like referring to your least favorite sunset in Paris. However, I’ve probably seen it the most often due to the period in the 1980s when it was shown constantly (this phenomenon was satirized in a 1987 episode of “Cheers”).
Either as a side-effect of getting older or simply the times in which we live, I confess that the film becomes more bittersweet with each year’s inevitable viewing. Are there any George Baileys left in the modern world? Were they all ground under the iron heel of the Mr. Potters who run our corporations, our banks, and, well, our country? Yet, every year, Americans curl up with a glass of eggnog and root for George while later voting for Mr. Potter, who is quite clear in his intent to pave over Bedford Falls and erect a consumerist Pottersville-nightmare.
Oh well, Christmas is, after all, all about cognitive dissonance, so let’s just embrace it until our bleary-eyed, New Year’s hangover greets us in 2012.
If “A Christmas Carol” offers the promise of redemption, the appeal of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the notion that your life actually matters and has a demonstrably positive effect on other people. It warms even the coldly cynical part of me that believes the universe is just too big for one person’s absence or involvement to make much of a difference. And before anyone counters with Hitler, I would point out that there’s always someone next in line.
Also, like “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” has inspired countless explorations of its themes in TV and film. I’ll be generous here and call them “homages.” The effective “It’s a Wonderful Life” formula requires a decent man pushed to the brink and a satanic figure who would run riot in the world if that good man gives up in the face of his endless struggle with him. The film is an obvious Christ allegory but with a happy ending — God intervenes and prevents George’s suicide rather than insisting it’s part of a larger plan, and the people of Bedford Falls do not abandon George in his most vulnerable moment. Yeah, maybe the Christ story is more realistic.
I thought it might be fun — if for no one but myself — to revisit a few of these “It’s a Wonderful Life” remakes in their various forms (as I plan to do with “A Christmas Carol”). The first one is from a 2008 episode of the daytime soap opera “The Young and the Restless,” which always featured a Christmas-themed episode I found myself watching during my single days. In a way, it combines both “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful LIfe” — Michael Baldwin, unlike George Bailey, is no saint. Years ago, he was a pretty vile character who committed acts that would make Herman Cain blush. He’s since redeemed himself and, as the following clips reveal, makes the world around him a better one.
I personally doubt this will happen with Cain, but who knows? He’ll probably need the help of three spirits but those guys do good work.