Tom McFeely is the National Catholic Register’s News Editor. He lives in British Columbia.
The New York Times city editor Wendell Jamieson wants to hate It’s a Wonderful Life.
He really does.
But even though the film’s self-sacrificing message and small-town lifestyle represent many of the things Jamieson detests, he just can’t help being touched by the movie’s timeless message of Christmas love.
In his Dec. 19 article, “Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life,” Jamieson details what’s wrong with the movie from the perspective of a New York sophisticate like himself.
“‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people,” Jamieson writes. “It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.”
And Jamieson thinks that the decadent, alternate-universe Pottersville that protagonist George Bailey finds himself in, as he contemplates suicide because of the disappointments he’s suffered while struggling to live a life of honor, is far preferable to Bailey’s actual home of Bedford Falls.
Pottersville is more viable economically too, in Jamieson’s judgment.
“Gary Kamiya, in a funny story on Salon.com in 2001, rightly pointed out how much fun Pottersville appears to be, and how awful and dull Bedford Falls is. He even noticed that the only entertainment in the real town, glimpsed on the marquee of the movie theater after George emerges from the alternate universe, is ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s,’” Jamieson says. “Now that’s scary.”
Continues Jamieson, “I’ll do Mr. Kamiya one better, though. Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly.
“On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.”
Almost to the end of Jamieson’s critique of the shortcomings of Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey and of Bedford Falls, the reader is inescapably drawn towards the conclusion that ridicule is the only reason the worldly New York Times editor is writing about “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
That conclusion may be inescapable, but it’s also completely wrong. Instead, “It’s a Wonderful Life” demonstrates again the power it holds to melt the most hardened of hearts.
Jamieson concludes his article by confessing to the high school teacher who first introduced him to the Hollywood classic what the movie does to Jamieson, despite his deep-seated cynicism about George Bailey, Bedford Falls and the principles they represent:
“So I’ll tell Mr. Ellman a secret. It’s something I felt while watching the film all those years ago, but was too embarrassed to reveal.
“That last scene, when Harry comes back from the war and says, ‘To my big brother, George, the richest man in town’? Well, as I sat in that classroom, despite the dreary view of the parking lot; despite the moronic Uncle Billy; despite the too-perfect wife, Mary; and all of George’s lost opportunities, I felt a tingling chill around my neck and behind my ears. Fifteen years old and imagining myself an angry young man, I got all choked up.
“And I still do.”
— Tom McFeely