To many Americans, the Christmas season wouldn't be complete without at least a few scenes from "It's a Wonderful Life." The movie wasn't a box-office hit when it was released just after the Second World War, but it's acquired quite a following since -- and even some critical acclaim.
Years ago I read a brief analysis of "It's a Wonderful Life" by a professor of American Studies at Boston University. To him, it showed that, while life can be "an enriching Norman Rockwell experience, it also can be smothering, where you end up marrying the girl you went to high school with, and you never get to go to Europe. ... It tells us George is one of the most sad and lonely and tragic characters ever imagined. I cry when I see it."
Me, I cry for the professor. Not that I haven't shed a few tears myself while watching "It's a Wonderful Life" over the years. But not for the professor's reasons. To me, nothing in the movie seems as sad as the professor's analysis of it.
The movie makes marrying your high school sweetheart seem any number of things, including comedy, but never tragedy. Frank Capra's tearjerker is a celebration of the ordinary middle-class virtues, which are not nearly ordinary enough in these times.
George Bailey a tragic figure? Come on. Why, he's the richest man in town, as his brother says at the end of the movie. He makes Mr. Potter, the stock plutocrat in the story, look like a pauper. That's because George Bailey has loved and sacrificed and built and given and stood alone a time or two. That is, he has lived. He has not gone through life as a tourist.
Never getting to Europe does not strike me as the kind of experience that qualifies for tragedy, possibly because I grew up as the child of immigrants who were born in Europe -- and they could scarcely think of a worse fate than having to return there. To them, not coming to America would have been the tragedy.
Surely only an American swimming in blessings would consider marrying your high school sweetheart, which is what I did, some kind of tragedy.
To me, the movie's message is that George Bailey's life has not been sad or lonely, let alone tragic. Even if George himself, played with all-American earnestness by Jimmy Stewart, might think so at his lowest, most self-pitying point.
Can the professor, like so many Americans, have been using "tragic" as just a synonym for sad? Only a richly blessed people would confuse everything from fender-benders to bankruptcy a tragedy.