FROM SILVER SCREEN COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES
Thomas Griffin 12/25/22
So many watch the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life each year during the Christmas season. For my family’s first year with our son Benedict we will start the tradition of watching it on Christmas Day. What is it about this movie which remains timeless even though it still appears in black and white and has old-fashioned mannerisms and phrases sewn throughout? Most simply we know the theme makes contact with something real about humanity, but a closer investigation shows that it was and is both true and very real.
George Bailey’s character (played by the famous Jimmy Stewart) has a failed suicide attempt which maps out the trajectory for the entire film which journeys through despair, tears, triumphs, and arrives at the proper perspective found in the simplicity of love in life. It is often the transition between the authentic desperation of cliff-hanging moments to true solutions and honest transformation which set the stage for the success or failure for any film. The key to the success of Bailey’s character is owed, in large part, to Stewart’s time in World War II serving in the Army Air Corps.
He was home for only a short time before starring in the film and this was Jimmy’s first acting job since before the war. The war impacted all the men who served, but especially the younger generations. We know now that the quantity in loss of life and the first hand accounts of the evil which war brings about leave scars and cast doubts in the minds of the strongest men and women. For Stewart this applied as well.
There are several moments in the film which stand as defining scenes in the roadmap of the script. A keen observer and repeat viewer can pick up the fact that these moments all entail some form of intense frustration or doubt about the goodness of George (his self-esteem), the meaning of life, or the virtue found in the world. There are no greater characteristics in the human psyche which must be reflected on than these three arenas: self-worth, the reason for our existence and the goodness of humanity.
The term “unprecedented” has been attached to 2020 and 2021 in an inescapable manner because of the coronavirus. The fact of the matter is that there has never been a time in human history where the entire globe of nearly seven billion people have all been contemplating possible illness and death simultaneously. The last few years have been very tough. With quarantines, job-loss, lack of human contact, and experiencing the deaths of loved ones it is easy to question the reason for life; with the way people have treated each other in our streets it is easy to question whether human dignity is still a universal; with the manner in which politics is played out it is easy to question whether humanity’s goodness is in a nose-dive.
People, in general, can feel as if there is not much logic or good going around these days. All of these contemporary thoughts and fears can be summarized by George Bailey’s exclamation: “I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope.” Every person who is honest with themselves will recall that they once said something similar at a time when they were massively struggling.
The beauty of the masterpiece that has become It’s a Wonderful Life is that it does not only tell a powerful story, but that the main actor was not really acting. Stewart really did doubt God and whether life was worth living after such a horrendous war. Humanity connects to this timeless film because it confronts the most human questions with the light and truth of hope.
Christmas is the time to come to grips with the fact that there is much wrong in this world and that life has its major and profound challenges. However, the answer is in the one born in a stable – the one who shouts out to the world that there is good in the world worth fighting for and that the meaning of life is found in relationship with God and those who surround us, especially during this time of year.
So, watch the wonderful true life of George Bailey and be engaged in the common struggles of humanity while always counting on the fact that God is listening. Hard times befall all of us, but the true meaning of life is found in how we view our troubling times.
Thomas Griffin is the chairperson of the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island where he lives with his wife and son. He has a masters degree in theology and is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Empty Tomb Project: The Magazine. He writes for several media outlets.
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