Friday, November 28, 2008

"Clarence, where's Mary?"

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the moon will go through a full phase, the earth will rotate on its axis a couple of dozen times, Helium will remain the second element on the Periodic Table, and I will watch "It's a Wonderful Life", the Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

I love this film, even though I know it is a fanciful portrayal of both America and family life, not to mention an angel named Clarence who teaches George Bailey to "Remember no man is a failure who has friends." The notion of examining what the world would be like without me in it is even appealing.

But what also strikes me in the film is one small feature that is at least ambivalent in terms of Christian teaching, and possibly opposed to it.

The question is: does the portrayal of Mary Bailey as "an old maid" who works in the library show that the film really has not just a wonderful view of family life (happiness in spite of the father not reaching the level of financial success in life he desires, and at some level being constantly frustrated with his situation)...does it also stray into an idolatry of the family? I'm not sure. Here are the possibilities, and you may think of others:

1. George's horror at Mary being unmarried is a reflection that because he never lived, her life has somehow been wasted because she never married. This would deny the goodness of single life, as Jesus and Paul both taught, as a state to be held up alongside or even in higher regard than marriage and family life.

2. George's horror at Mary being unmarried is more personal, in that it means the happiness the two of them shared never happened. And that their children do not exist in the world where George Bailey never lived.

It's possible that both are true in the film, i.e., that Clarence's description of Mary as an "old maid" reveals this to be a terrible blow, while George reacts at a much more personal level. Certainly not everyone in Bedford Falls or Pottersville is shown to be married and with kids to be happy, though Ma Bailey and her bitterness would indicate that growing old without children made her angry enough at life.

What are your thoughts on this idea in "It's a Wonderful Life", or just your favourite scene from the film? Or even your favourite element on the periodic table (mine is Krypton, 36, with hopes that one day Kryptonite can be made from that gas...)


Ran Barton said...

Very fond of carbon - it's so simple, so fundamental, and so vital.

I think that the film really does put forth Mary's oldmaidhood as a horrible fate. Fair or not, that's how I've always seen it. I also am inclined to think that George's horror is over the fact that the love he and Mary shared, and their kids, are simply nonexistent.

I think my favorite part of the movie is when they are on their way home from the dance and singing Buffalo Girl Won’t You Come Out Tonight. It's such a sweet, innocent, idealized depiction of young love, and as trite and saccharin as it is on some levels, I'm a sucker for it.

Close runner up - the horror that comes over Mary when George comes home in despair in is so awful to all of them. Mary's mix of love and concern for George mixed with her protection of her children is really very powerful.

I also love their honeymoon is the old rainy house. I guess it's clear that I'm a sucker for romanticized Capra images of America.

It's now been a few years since I've seen it, and I am determined to fix that this year.

Merry Christmas, Cliff.

Clifford Swartz said...


I take it from this that you've made it home from your Thanksgiving visit up north -- wonderful.

I'm pretty much a sucker for the whole film, too. Some of the small episodes are also touching, e.g., when George and Mary turn over the keys to the Martinis' home and make a little moment of it by giving them bread, salt and wine, all the while George's old buddy is watching and poking fun.

When I think of that scene when George comes home and chews out the family, it convicts me to leave the outside pressures outside, and not bring them over into relationships at home.

By the way, sale on Macs today...

seapea said...

first of all, i don't know what periodic tables are. i think they have something to do with i dunno what you're talking about.

secondly of this magnificent film (and i say magnificent very very rarely - in the film genres, i only apply to Amadeus, period!) which always never fails to make me bawl at the end (even with the stupid - yes really stupid AND corny! - "angel gets a wing" part), has never prodded me to think of it in a realistic or even christian way. perhaps wrong of me...

but i think re: mary's singleness isn't a gift here, but that when the film came out, it was the time of everyone having had a debut of some sort (single gals - if eligible & all that), married their "beau"s and all, i think it must've been a terrible faux pas to not have married and look that terrified and "old miss"y. the film does a good scare of you wanting to marry, and not to be alone! the council of marriage (if there's such a thing) should highly recommend this film to those people who are workaholic ladies and ladies who are like me, who don't seem to be that lonely too many days of the year - it'll work wonders! oh the horror of being ALONE! and being TAUNTED!

and i think george was sad cuz he thought it was terrible to be a) alone and b) miss his kids & the love they've had in "real" life. poor george...what a terrible realistic looking lesson - i'd freak out if i were george - more so than freaking out over lost money (i still don't get how the savings & loans made any money...i'm so not good with money stuff, so i don't get it).

anyway, i dunno if have a fav scene but i really get a real heartache whenever i see george doesn't get to go or do things because he has to sacrifice - not that i've ever felt that (well, to that magnitude at least), but just the fact it's so harrowing.

i finally got this film in B*W & Color the other month - it's going to be playing every weekend in my small apt! Kleenex vendors, line-up and make money off! (actually, they should really partner up - this movie & kleenex so that they can make money...not a bad idea, eh?)

Justin said...

I saw this movie by force. That is, I was on a Pacific Flight from LA to Sydney, and they had one screen, rather than individual screens.

It was Christmas Eve.

I was crying with joy in Row 67J. Aisle seat. By the end of the film.

Love it.