"Thibaw, the last King of Burma, was a drunkard, he had five hundred wives - he seems to have kept them chiefly for show, however - and when he came to the throne his first act was to decapitate seventy or eighty of his brothers. Yet he did posterity a good turn by planting the dusty streets of Mandalay with tamarind trees which cast a pleasant shade until the Japanese incendiary bombs burned them down in 1942." George Orwell, "A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray", 1946
When it comes to hokum, something for which Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite, few movies can top Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. At the time of its release (1946), few people took to its odd mixture of A Christmas Carol and Our Town, and the movie bombed, carrying Capra's and William Wyler's fledgling company, Liberty Films, with it. After all, who could have lived through World War II only to face this fulsome fairy tale?
But thanks to the efforts of some of its more vocal admirers, including James Stewart who kept telling everyone that it was his favorite, the movie has been ensconced as a classic and can be seen every Christmas on American TV - just as John Ford's godawful The Quiet Man is virtually inescapable around St. Patrick's Day. Saccharine may not be fattening, but it is still carcinogenic.
By now the plot should be familiar to everyone: after a particularly hard day at the office, George Bailey - played by Stewart - suddenly (and quite unconvincingly) wishes that he had never been born. Before he has a chance to throw himself off a bridge, an angel appears and proceeds to give George a guided tour of what his small town would be like without him. Of course (this is Hollywood) everything has changed: people get divorced, or never married, his brother is long dead, a pretty girl he grew up with has become a hooker, there are neon signs and dance halls everywhere, and even the name of the town has changed. With such a resounding demonstration of how crucial his measly life has been to his small town, of course George changes his mind and wants to go back.
Allowing for some charming incidental details, mostly thanks to Stewart at his most achingly genuine, this is where the movie stands or falls: that every human life touches every other to such an extent that the removal of one has a catastrophic effect on all the others. This is definitely a Western concept. Nobody east of Suez would buy it. Far east of Suez, I cannot say that I buy it either. Even if Capra had not stacked the deck so blatantly in his favor, I still would not have bought it. The trouble with the message that Capra drives home with a sledgehammer is that it cries out for a counter-argument.
Though It's a Wonderful Life was remade - quite pointlessly - by Marlo Thomas in 1977, (1) I would like to see it re-invented entirely, without changing one salient point: George Bailey is constantly looking for a way out of his miserable home town. When he becomes convinced, for no particular reason, that he should never have been born, I, too, would show him what his town would be like without him. But if there is any difference at all in his town, with or without him, it is too subtle for George to see. Instead of a child named George, his mother bears another child by another name. Instead of marrying George, his wife has married someone else. When he witnesses the apparent inconsequence of his never having been alive, instead of being confirmed in his conviction that he should never have been born, he finds that he cannot believe it, and goes on a near-frantic search for some proof that his life left a mark on the town and on the lives of its inhabitants.
When I tried to explain my remake of It's a Wonderful Life to a friend many years ago, he remarked contemptuously that the illustration of my thesis - that one human life counts for so little - would drive people to suicide. But if I had turned Capra's film on its head, George Bailey's small town would have, indeed, been improved by his absence. My remake remains neutral. But I would not leave George standing there, alone in the street, with the certainty that his life had no meaning. I would give him a reprieve in the form of one proof, heretofore overlooked, that he had left a mark - a mark that is tellingly missing in the world that never knew him. He sees it in a children's park in the middle of town. So moved is he by what he sees - something only he would have noticed - that he changes his mind and begs to be returned to his life.
My remake doesn't reveal what it was that George saw - or did not see - in the park until the film's last moments. The nightmare over, George resumes his life in his home town as if nothing had disturbed its placid surface. But he returns to the park every day, at the hottest hour, to marvel at a mature oak tree spreading its shade over the grass - the same oak that had grown from the acorn that George had pushed into the dirt without a thought one spring morning when he was a boy.
(1) It Happened One Christmas. Thomas plays "Mary Bailey Hatch".