To many Americans, the 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 in the 1940s, but it's become a seasonal favorite since -- and even acquired some critical acclaim along the way.
Years ago I read a brief analysis of "It's a Wonderful Life" by a professor of American studies at Boston University. I should have known better. Any academic field with the word "studies" in its name is suspect from the start -- as opposed to a traditional discipline like history or literature. Naturally the professor's take on the movie was suspect, too. To him, it showed only 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."
That may be about the only thing the professor and I have in common. I've shed a few tears myself watching "It's a Wonderful Life" over the years. But not for the same reason as the professor. To me, nothing in the movie seems as sad as his analysis of it. The movie makes marrying your high school sweetheart seem any number of things, including comedy, delight, education, vexation and fulfillment -- they all come with married life -- but tragedy? No. Frank Capra's tearjerker is a celebration of the ordinary middle-class virtues, which are not nearly ordinary enough in these oh-so-advanced times.
George Bailey a tragic figure? Come on. Why, he's the richest man in town, as his brother says at the melodramatic climax 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.
As for the idea that not getting to Europe is a tragedy, that notion would have much amused my immigrant mother. I can see her wry smile now. Which turned steely whenever she heard anybody say a bad word about America. You could almost see her thinking: Who knows America who knows only America? To her, the tragedy would have been not making it to America.
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, thinks so at his lowest, most self-pitying, self-absorbed ebb.