I’ve always been fascinated with time travel. The “Back to the Future” franchise was popular when I was a kid, but it wasn’t a new concept. H.G. Wells had written about the subject 100 years prior to that and truth be told, there are stories from before Christ that involve time travel. After 30 years thinking about it, I’m still tempted to daydream from time to time. While going back will never be possible, the gift of film has come close enough for me. Around the holidays I always look forward to traveling back in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Released in 1946, the film was not well received at first. It tells the story of George Bailey, the small town hero who sacrifices his youthful ambitions to save the family building and loan for the sake of the town. Now a cult classic, most folks have seen part or all of the film at some time or another through years of Christmas television re-runs. Film critics routinely lambast Capra as being an idealistic filmmaker who oversimplified his plots. George was a good guy who met a nice girl, and had nice children. Despite almost being ruined by a miser on Christmas Eve, everything works out in the end because his guardian angel showed him the real meaning of life. That’s too simple; stupid even, they say.
As I’ve traveled back to George’s fictional life the last several years at Christmas, it’s made more sense to me each time. George’s life was a series of choices made. Most of them were right, but they progressed along the time line largely beyond his control. The film is not without a sense of fate. George wanted things that he couldn’t have, but he got what he needed and ended up wanting that instead. As a result of those choices, most of which were made for him, he ended up a very content man at the end of the movie. In the middle he was miserable, but once he was given perspective on the situation, he realized that the things that were making him miserable didn’t matter anyway. George lived in a small town where everybody knew his business. He was one of the most popular and well respected men in town, and yet in a crisis, he stood on the bridge looking at the icy water below. He was there because he still wanted things he didn’t need. He wanted money and influence and control over his life. What he needed was to realize that he’d gotten where he was not by his own design, but by a higher power’s. All he had to do was go on being George Bailey. When he wakes up on the bridge after having met the angel and seeing how miserable his town would be without him, George is ecstatic to be alive. His car is wrecked, his lip is bleeding, and he’s probably going to jail for something he didn’t do. None of that matters though, because George has seen the alternative. Of course in the end, he doesn’t have to go to jail. His friends help him out. I suppose that’s what the experts think is idealistic. To me it seems the most real. When George was doing okay he didn’t think he had any friends. Nobody was worried about George because they had no need to be. Suddenly when his car’s wrecked, it’s Christmas Eve, and he’s in trouble with the law, he has plenty of friends. Sounds like real life to me. Humans are mostly concerned about themselves on any given Tuesday when there’s not much shakin’. On Christmas Eve when the chips are down for a guy who really doesn’t deserve it, you can bet the folks will show up to help. Rather than call it idealistic, I’d call it optimistic. The film allows us to see the best in the hero, and the best in the town. The villain ends up alone and out of the final shot on Christmas Eve. That’s how villains end up in real life. Figuratively or literally, they end up alone by their own machinations. The good guy ends up in a room full of friends by accident.
During this especially hectic time of year, be sure to take advantage of time machines like “It’s A Wonderful Life.” And leave a place in your heart for a little optimism. Even a scrooge like me who’s known throughout the year for being a realist can be optimistic in December. Sometimes optimism is real too.
*I wrote this a couple years ago. Thought I’d share it again for the season. Merry Christmas!