I don't much care for films that celebrate "small-town values." I always feel judged, even personally attacked, by these movies. When the restless Jenny in "Forrest Gump" leaves town and ends up an ex-junkie dying of AIDS, I read it as a threat to any woman who doesn't stay put and marry the town idiot.
This time of year, I'm inevitably confronted with another movie that really disturbs me, "It's a Wonderful Life." I know most folks find Frank Capra's Christmas film stirring and heartwarming and inspirational. Yes, Jimmy Stewart is captivating and Donna Reed is radiant, but I find the story very depressing. To me, it's a horror flick.
Growing up, I felt, just like George Bailey, that "if I didn't get away, I'd bust." Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, where I lived, may have been part of a big city, but it was every bit as claustrophobic as tiny Bedford Falls. I hated the dull everydayness of life there, where the big event of the week was egg rolls and chicken chow mein on Sunday night, and the big scandal of the day was that our super had spent the evening in a "saloon."
I used to sit on the fire escape of our railroad flat and dream about getting an education and traveling to exotic places and creating things that the world would admire. I also dreamed about hanging out in "saloons," like maybe Harry's Bar in Venice.
"I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I'm gonna see the world," George Bailey tells Mary, the girl who loves him. "Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm comin' back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields, I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm gonna build bridges a mile long."
Except he doesn't. He stays. Mary makes a secret wish to keep him there, and it comes true, at the expense of his happiness. Kinda cruel, if you ask me.
Poor old George takes the tedious job in the shabby loan office, lives in the abandoned old house at 320 Sycamore Street that he always hated, and watches life pass him by. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Harry, and his pal, Sam Wainwright, go off and enjoy the adventures he yearned for. When George winds up suicidal, Clarence the angel is dispatched to remind him of the value of his personal sacrifice.
I, on the other hand, was a selfish little piggy who left home as soon as I could. My parents didn't understand why I wanted to go to college. "Why pay money to go away and read books? You could stay home and read books." How could I explain to them that college was my ticket out of their humdrum life?
I'm not as rich or famous as I'd wished, but the journey has had its own rewards (and I managed not to contract any life-threatening diseases along the way). I also managed to find a husband who encouraged me to follow my heart's desire even if it meant that he wouldn't get a home-cooked meal every night.
As the town rallies around the long-suffering George to rescue him from financial ruin, he finally realizes that what really counts in life is family and friends. I'll buy that. But Harry and Sam -- those two guys who left town and became a war hero and entrepreneur -- also seem to have found family and friends. Why must we choose between the two? Why can't we find love and also pursue our passions? Like director Capra did?
Capra's parents -- poor immigrants from Sicily -- pressured him to leave high school and get a job, but he defied them and graduated from L.A.'s Manual Arts High School. "I was going to school because I had a fight on my hands that I wanted to win," Capra recalled later in life. He won by a knockout. He went on to Throop College of Technology (which became Caltech), and, for having the highest grades, he won a six-week trip across the U.S. and Canada. (He enlisted in the Army too, though he got sidelined by the Spanish flu.) He ended up in a huge new house across the street from Gary Cooper, a marvelous spread in Brentwood with orchard and orange groves -- a far cry from plain old Bedford Falls.
What if George Bailey had been a selfish little piggy like me, or like Frank Capra? How wonderful would his life have been if George had followed his dreams? He might have traveled to progressive countries like Denmark or Sweden and discovered societies that aren't in a pitched battle between rich and poor. Then he could have used the wealth he earned from being a world-class architect to run for public office.
And instead of being stuck in that drafty old house at 320 Sycamore, he could have ended up in the comfy, climate-controlled mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And there, his compassion for the common folk -- "They do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?" -- might have resonated far beyond Bedford Falls.