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...)