Late to the Party: It’s a Wonderful Life

December 8, 2010
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It’s not so much that I’m late to the party; I’ve always been at the party—I just didn’t want to be there until recently. For my entire life, I have avoided seeing It’s a Wonderful Life. For me, this was a particularly difficult task. I found the film nauseating, despite having never seen it. To understand my feelings about this classic film and my need to avoid it at all costs, we have to go back to my childhood.

I was born and raised in Indiana, Pennsylvania—the hometown of Jimmy Stewart. My childhood home was just five blocks from Stewart’s childhood home. I never knew who Jimmy Stewart was until my Cub Scout troop marched in a parade honoring the actor. The first image I saw of him was on my Jimmy Stewart Parade badge. During the parade, we marched past the site of the hardware store that Stewart’s father once owned. There, Stewart himself sat on a podium and watched the event. I never took Cub Scouts seriously, but I was moved when Stewart gave us the Cub Scout salute. When the event ended, however, I was much more delighted to have another badge on my uniform than to have seen a Hollywood actor in person.

As I got older, I grew to know the schmaltzy It’s a Wonderful Life image my town celebrated every holiday season: every Christmas, a “You Are Now in Bedford Falls” sign stood where the Stewart hardware store used to be. A holiday light show featured George lassoing the moon. Indiana presented It’s a Wonderful Life as a film celebrating simplistic, traditional values. Stewart symbolized the typical nice, small-town guy.

As the steel and coal industries crumbled in Western Pennsylvania during the 1980s, my town embraced its view of Stewart for commercial purposes. People tried their hands at entrepreneurship by exploiting Stewart. We had Jimmy’s Restaurant and It’s a Wonderful Cup. About the same time, my town honored Stewart more and more, naming a street and airport after him. We erected a statue of Stewart on the lawn of the courthouse, created a museum for him, and posted a sign letting people know the exact place of his birth. My hometown celebrated Stewart for all of the good things that small-town life had to offer in an effort to fix its cracked economic base.

For me, Jimmy Stewart and my hometown became one. As a teenager, I hated my hometown and small-town life in general. I thought it lacked urban sophistication, and the cliquey atmosphere was stifling. Stewart dominated the visual iconography of the town. His face on the courthouse lawn came to symbolize everything I hated. Why on earth would I watch the film on which my town based its image?

I wound up going to undergraduate school in my hometown at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. As an English major, my goal was to study hard and go to graduate school as far away as possible. I took “The Art of the Film” my last semester. Slowly the class started to mean more to me than my literature courses, and as I was deciding which graduate program to attend, the direction of my life changed when my film professor showed Vertigo. Stewart mesmerized me as he transformed from his small-town, nice-guy image to a monster on screen. So much about the film moved me, but mostly I remember thinking Hitchcock uncovered a truth about small-town America: beneath the façade of friendliness rests some really horrific, sick stuff. I enrolled in Georgetown’s graduate English program because of the film studies faculty there.

Since seeing Vertigo, I’ve grown to love Jimmy Stewart, but I still actively avoided It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m taken by the subtle darkness Stewart can portray, but after watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in graduate school, I was reminded of Stewart’s good-guy image. Being that Mr. Smith was a Capra-Stewart film, it confirmed my conviction not to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

I decided to give the film a try for Antenna’s Late to the Party feature. The first 90 minutes pleasantly surprised me. Sure, Stewart is a nice guy willing to stand up against corruption, but the movie also exposes the physical, emotional, economic, and career sacrifices one has to make to stay in a small town. This was not the schmaltzy film about the blessings of small-town life that my hometown had presented to me. The last 45 minutes certainly delivered the cheese I feared, but I wasn’t offended by the rosy portraits celebrating small-town life. Rather, they easily resolved complex tensions of small-town life. George represses so much to stay in this town, but he releases his anger only because of the loss of $8,000. From there, everything becomes rushed—George’s anger at his family, his suicidal thoughts, his economic despair, and his redemption.

I was also struck by how odd it is that Indiana, PA, chooses to remember Stewart through a film that basically says life in a small town is crap, and you can only be saved from its traps through divine intervention. I should have watched the film as a teen because it confirmed my feelings at the time. As an adult who has an interest in cultural geography and has embraced his rural Western PA roots, I’m more concerned with how It’s a Wonderful Life participates in a larger cultural process that simplifies the complexities of small-town life to a few traits in order to offer an equally simplistic notion that life would be better elsewhere, particularly in a city.

When I travel to see my parents over the holidays, I plan to visit the Jimmy Stewart Museum. Since I haven’t been there in years, I’m interested to reexamine how that site remembers Stewart. But no matter how my town remembers Jimmy Stewart, I am now, as an adult, quite proud to be from his hometown.



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