Since we didn’t get a new episode of American Horror Story this week, I wanted to talk about something holiday related, and the first thing that popped into my head was It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s story about man and his influence on the people around him has become a touchstone of holiday entertainment. This movie has been copied and parodied so many times that it’s easy to forget about the original, and about the one element often ignored in all of the parodies. George Bailey is suicidal.
Capra directed the movie in 1946, right after World War II. The feel good movie stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey and TV super wife Donna Reed as his wife Mary. Over the course of the movie, we see George act selflessly to save his brother, his friends and the whole town of Bedford Falls time and again. When his uncle loses a deposit headed for the bank, George’s company faces financial ruin. Believing he has no other options (and thinking he’s worth more dead than alive), George decides to jump off a bridge, only to be saved by his guardian angel, Clarence. After being shown what the town would be like without him, George returns to find that all of the people he’s helped have rallied to save his company. Clarence gets his angel wings, and everyone celebrates Christmas. (It also has Jimmy Stewart delivering the least convincing line ever delivered in a movie, declaring that he’s “going to find a girl and neck furiously.” It’s hilarious.)
The fact that both George and Clarence say the word “suicide” surprised me. Remember when I said that suicide is a weird loophole in the discussion of mental health in pop culture? This is what I mean. This famous, beloved movie tackles the topic directly. I don’t think about the 1940s as a time when mental health issues were discussed openly, in such a prominent way. The movie is nonjudgmental about suicide while taking the stand that it’s not a good idea. Reminding George that his life has been good, that people have depended on him and love him is a beautiful way to illustrate the impact of suicide.
Psychiatry and psychology are barely mentioned (it is mentioned in passing that, without George, his uncle was committed to a “lunatic asylum”), because the focus is on the spiritual side of healing. Clarence reminds George that his life is God’s greatest gift, and that the prayers of the town’s people are what drew Heaven’s attention. It’s a very gentle religious message, one in keeping with Capra’s understated style. Even the name of the religion isn’t mentioned (though it’s obviously Judeo-Christian in origin), allowing the audience to fill in their own beliefs. The movie is less about religion than about spirituality, and understanding your importance in the world.
I hadn’t watched It’s A Wonderful Life in many years, and watching it again gave me a new appreciation for the movie. It’s a nice reminder about how important you are to the world around you, especially at a time when people tend to forget that. . It dares not to judge George for his suicidal thoughts, but reminds him that he’s important to the world. If you get some time this holiday season, I recommend you watch the movie (or watch it again). It’s worth remembering the moral around the holidays and all year long.
**If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please know that there are people who can help. The suicide prevention hotline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. You’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. They also have a chat feature on their website, http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
There won’t be a blog post next week, but I’ll be back on January 2 for a new episode of American Horror Story. Have a wonderful, happy and safe holiday season!