I looked up the writers of the classic Frank Capra flick It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s name was among them, and when I did some further-depth research about his own life, I was a little surprised to learn that he suffered occasional bouts of depression during an earlier downswing in his younger years. It seemed odd to me because It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t come off as anything that could ever have been written by anyone who’s suffered from depression. It comes off like more the fantasy of a screenwriter trying to put his arm around the backs of depression sufferers everywhere and say “There, there, it’ll all get better.”
There was a brief window of my life when I made a tradition, like everyone else, of watching It’s a Wonderful Life during the holiday season. I was just a few years into it, though, when I noticed that there was something about it which really wasn’t sitting right with me. I had hit a low point in my life at the time and was contemplating suicide harder than I ever had – it’s fairly safe to say only my religious beliefs at the time kept me from going through with it. That, of course, puts me in a situation similar to that of George Bailey, James Stewart’s main character. The movies takes us through George’s life story, bringing us to the moment the movie begins, when God – yes, THAT God – is commanding an angel named Clarence to talk George out of his suicidal depression. Clarence visits George, shows him what everything would be like of he never existed, and George is magically happy again.
If only real depression were that simple. In real life, there’s no Clarence, and George offs himself. The problem with the movie’s premise is that George is set up and defined as a man of very significant impact. It’s true that George has thwarted dreams that are similar to my own in a couple of ways, but it’s difficult to get me to believe George really had it that bad. His dream of traveling the world, after all, is something he surrenders willingly, even if he does do it quite often. George first takes over a business that was threatening to stop writing loans out for the poor because the board heads would only continue doing that if George was running it. I don’t have any problems with this; but George gives his college cash stash to his brother Harry, and that’s where the problem begins. Harry takes George’s cue and then seemingly coasts through his life on a series of implausible breaks. Harry marries into a rich family and becomes a war hero.
George, meanwhile, runs his company and keeps roadblocking his own path. His gestures are admittedly noble: At one point, he gives his honeymoon money to depositors to satisfy their immediate needs. At another, he turns down the job of his dreams when it’s offered because his nemesis, Potter, is planning to take over his city.
Throughout all this, by the way, George is able to find the time and means to marry his longtime love and sire four kids. He buys a home, too. During the never-born sequence, George’s wife, Mary, ends up being a shy, perpetually single librarian, as if she could never have found a man who wasn’t George Bailey and a fulfilling career. (Well, okay, this movie is from 1946, so the career isn’t very likely.)
A supremely ironic point that occurs to me right now is that so far, the movie and I are in agreement over the main theme: George is leading a life most people would consider very significant and fulfilling. But that’s where our similarities end. George is very well known and beloved throughout his community because of the willing selflessness he shows, constantly sacrificing pursuit of his dreams in order to better the lives of those around him. Everything he did, except getting rejected by the military, was something he gave up by personal choice. He has good friends and a devoted wife and a good home in a nice community.
This is basically magical Hollywood depression. It’s sanitized nicely for people who believe a few inspiring words are more than enough to snap anyone out of a funk and return them to their jolly old selves. Just like real depression and real suicidal contemplation, I swear, knowing from experience. It’s basically the same, except take away George’s communal niceties, flowing opportunities, family, and largely decent job. Strip him of all the status, prestige, and trust he earned from the people around him, and put him in a much more menial situation in which the livlihoods of a lot fewer people depend on his fortunes and you’ll start to get the idea. I can’t imagine myself being the only person who ever watched this while depressed and thing holy shit, this movie is fucking mocking me!
The one inspirational thing that I did take away from It’s a Wonderful Life is actually the life story of Frank Capra himself. He got himself stuck in a life rut very similar to my own, and our ages during this rough patch weren’t that far apart. Capra was going through his during much worse circumstances. Yet, he still found a way to overcome his obstacles and eventually become one of the most important directors in the history of American film.