A town would be in rough shape without its good-hearted banker. That’s what many people would call a fantasy.
It’s A Wonderful Life is a movie about a local boy who stays local, doesn’t make good, and becomes at length so unhappy that he wishes he had never been born. At this point an angel named Clarence shows him what his family, friends, and town would have been like if he hadn’t been. As I mentioned several weeks ago, this story is somewhere near as effective, of its kind, as A Christmas Carol. In particular, the hero is extravagantly well played by James Stewart. But as I also mentioned, I had my misgivings. These have increased with time.
One important function of good art or entertainment is to unite and illuminate the heart and the mind, to cause each to learn from, and to enhance, the experience of the other. Bad art and entertainment misinform and disunite them. Much too often this movie appeals to the heart at the expense of the mind, at other times it urgently demands of the heart that it treat with contempt the mind’s efforts to keep its integrity; at still other times the heart is simply used, on the mind, as a truncheon. The movie does all this so proficiently, and with so much genuine warmth, that I wasn’t able to get reasonably straight about it for quite a while. I still think it has a good deal of charm and quality, enough natural talent involved in it to make ten pictures ten times as good, and terrific vitality or, rather, vigor–for much of the vitality seems cooked-up and applied rather than innate. (The high-school dance floor coming apart over a swimming pool is a sample of cooking-up that no movie has beaten for a long time.)
But mistrust, for instance, any work which tries to persuade me–or rather, which assumes that I assume–that there is so much good in nearly all the worst of us that all it needs is a proper chance and example, to take complete control. I mistrust even more deeply the assumption, so comfortably stylish these days, that whether people turn out well or ill depends overwhelmingly on outside circumstances and scarcely if at all on their own moral intelligence and courage. Neither idea is explicit in this movie, but the whole story depends on the strong implication and assumption of both. Stewart, to be sure, is shown as an “exceptional” man–that is, as a man often faced with moral alternatives who makes choices, usually for the good and to his own material disadvantage; but it is also shown that the whole community depends on his example and on his defense of the helpless.