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It's a 'Wonderful' Story, Flaws and All

Commentary: It may be too long, sexist and racist, yet the Frank Capra classic still has an important, engaging lesson.

December 21, 1996|STEPHEN HUNTER | THE BALTIMORE SUN

True story: In the early '70s, the Baltimore Sun's most incompetent copyreader was in career trouble. It seemed his employers expected him to spell words correctly, even the hard ones, like "sheriff" and "caricature." He also wanted to write but hated the paperwork. His prospects in either endeavor were limited.

Add the fact that it was Christmas Eve, the mega-depressive spoonful-of-arsenic night of the year. Add the fact that he had been so busy thinking about his own problems that it suddenly dawned on him he had not bothered to buy his poor, hard-working wife a Christmas present.

This was one sorry, sour, moping lad, let me tell you, pickling in the brine of his own self-loathing. So he's sitting there on Christmas Eve all by his lonely and feeling so sorry for himself he can hardly stand it.

He's watching the tube and drinking something intensely alcoholic, flicking through the channels, and suddenly upon this midnight clear he encounters a black-and-white tapestry of grief, despair, the corruptibility of man, a fable that illustrates the danger of self-hatred and offers a final celebration of community and family that moved him as much as anything he'd ever seen on a screen.

It rescued him, if only from the doldrums and a continued visit from that night's demons, but the happiness it brought felt as genuine to him as any in his life. That's the healing power of a great story. He had to wait until the credits to find out what this miracle was called and then learned it was some obscure thing going about under the cornball title "It's a Wonderful Life." He's loved it ever since.

Thus it is in the spirit of celebration that a film critic who was once a very bad copyreader gets to pen a tribute to the 1946 film that, after a mediocre reception in that year and decades of obscurity, has emerged in the last 15 years to become an authentic cult item as well as a holiday staple. It airs tonight at 8 on KNBC-TV.

I tell the story to stress a point about the movie that must be made up front: It's much better when it catches you unexpectedly, when, like an unexpected gift, it creeps across your consciousness unburdened by reputation or the professional treacle of the season.

Alas, that is no longer possible. Because it was out of copyright for many years, TV stations could show it without paying anyone; its lustrous black-and-white could even be colorized to appeal to today's kids. It was everywhere, all day long, usually in poor shape and interrupted by 75 commercials from Maury's Appliance-o-Rama, where your credit is always good, and, as a consequence, many people grew to hate it as much as those of us who encountered it in its pure state have grown to love it.

It's too long. It's an angel movie, for crying out loud. It's sexist and racist; some of the meet-cute stuff between stars Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed feels as ancient as Egypt, and the rich guy who goes about saying "heehaw" all the time deserves a punch in the snout.

Yet at the same time the film remains one of the most persistently engaging and professionally well-crafted movies of American history and to see it in an uninterrupted, restored version on the huge screen is about as close as one can come to re-creating its original purity.

For those who don't know it--any recent emigres to the Third Rock?--the movie follows the worst day in George Bailey's life as he's about to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. The bitter inheritor of his father's idealism, he's spent his life in a small city running a savings and loan association, which gives working men a chance at home ownership, incurring the wrath of the town's grasping capitalist, played by Lionel Barrymore in a magnificent portrait of misanthropy.

On the day of the story, his uncle and business partner misplaces a bank deposit, threatening to bring ruination to Bailey. He yields to despair and demands of God the unthinkable: not that he die, but that he never have been born. God obliges by sending a disassociated angel (Clarence), who bumbles eventually into showing George the world without his presence.

It's one of the great modernist sequences, easily the equal in power to Munch's screamer on the bridge or Bellow's Herzog in Grand Central Station or Heller's Yossarian lost in the Eternal City. George sees an America given in to its appetites, an America that knows no pause between conceiving something and having it, that celebrates the impulsive and the liberated, that celebrates, in other words, the self over everything.

George learns his lesson: In his smallest of ways, he has mattered, and he begs forgiveness for his blasphemy. In return, through Clarence, God grants him mercy. Back in the real Bedford Falls, his friends rally.

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