George Bailey and the Darkness on the Edge of Town

There's a particularly terrifying moment very late in the totemic and chronically misunderstood It's A Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey rings the bell of Ma Bailey's boarding house in Pottersville, the alternative upstate New York town riddled by vice because the good eldest Bailey son had never been born to save them all from Satan's power.

Stomping all over town searching for someone who'll recognize him, George arrives at his childhood home and his mother, played by Beulah Bondi, answers the door and looks on the thin, unshaven, sweating crazy man on her porch with a mixture of suspicion and fear:

GEORGE: Oh, Mother, Mother, please help me. Something terrible's happened to me. I don't know what it is. Something's happened to everybody. Please let me come in. Keep me here until I get over it.

MA BAILEY: Get over what? I don't take in strangers unless they're sent here by somebody I know.

To its critics, and they are legion, Frank Capra's story of the angel Clarence and his rescue of George Bailey from suicide and scandal is a sappy Christmas bromide, a far-too-pat (and religious) morality play that glorifies a stilted middle class ideal and an American myth of family, military, commerce, class structure and real estate.

Yet, It's A Wonderful Life has a dark, brooding heart and it openly questions in brutal terms the complaisance of small-town life just after the world's worst-ever conflict, a war that snuffed out tens of millions of people. And it descends directly, just more than a century onward, from the other horrific Yuletide morality tale of greed and redemption: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Sure, the stories share happy endings, God bless us every one.

That moment on Ma Bailey's porch has so many earlier echoes in Dickens, but the one that always jabbed at my American middle class consciousness was the moment when the hale fellow Ghost of Christmas Present opens his resplendent robes and reveals the horror hidden just below their luxuriant folds.

"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, "but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?"
"It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it," was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. "Look here."
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
"Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!" exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Ignorance and Want are their names, of course, and Scrooge is reminded of his earlier flippant crack about workhouses and prisons to keep the poor off his streets.  As much as we shop and decorate, sing the old songs and stuff ourselves, this is a season of the roughest contrasts - and has long seemed that way to me. We're reminded of the places "where no one asks any questions or looks to long in your face," and this year in particular the tinsel seems dulled and while the lights still shine, they do not shine unadorned by the nagging realization that something has changed, some false assumption about our own small town lies exposed.

In a brilliant essay for The Times this week, Wendell Jamieson re-examined It's A Wonderful Life and plumbed its nasty soul, remembering the first time he saw it as young student in film class - and the fear it evoked.

"It's a Wonderful Life" is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

It is also a story of the built-in power of corruption and the rewards for motivated avarice; no doubt, reminders of our current banking scandal reverberate for many who'll watch it tonight. Jamieson admits to a lump in his throat, and I'll admit to mine, even on  a yearly basis. What's moving about the Capra classic and A Christmas Carol is the notion that people can change - that they can be moved to action in the cause of others. That theme will always have the power to stir genuine emotion.

For the last year, I've been studying what moves people - particularly young people - to take nominally selfless action online. And I've found, to some modest relief, that  the generation behind mine does indeed believe in making societal benefit part of their daily lives. Yet, critics who have reminded me that my CauseWired movement can be light on deep involvement beyond a few clicks among Facebook friends are onto something. The virtual crowd of Bedford Falls townfolk crowding into George Bailey's house with cash for rescue from jail and disgrace does occur online, and quite often. I've seem the enthusiasm. Yet I often wonder if these same enthusiastic activists see the broken lives just down the block - and the huge economic and moral challenge just now becoming apparent as the financial myths that sustained a paper boom collapse around us. The New York media critic M.A. Peel captured that sense of a reluctant merrymaking nation before she headed off on a holiday jet:

This has been a dark holiday season. Does anyone feel "Merry"? We stand helpless witness to the collapse of the American economy and its ripple effects worldwide. The joy of gift giving itself was darkened by the death of 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour, a seasonal worker at Walmart who was trampeled to death when he opened the doors on Black Friday.

It's as though Pandora revisited the earth, undetected, with another box of ills to punish us anew for that primal theft of fire.

Yes, it feels like we're going through the motions, driven by cultural and commercial duty to make that deadline under the mistletoe. The always darkened mood of Jim Kunstler (and clearly his World Made By Hand is the novel of 2008's economic crisis) reached a particularly gloomy corner this week, stringing his Chanukah Kwanzaa Creches with the twinkling light of the of the Madoff scandal and the society-wide realization that this little downturn has the cold depths of Old Man Potter about it:

Public sentiment toward the accelerating economic fiasco has shifted, seemingly overnight, from a mood of nauseated amazement to one of panicked grievance as the United States moves closer to an apparent comprehensive collapse -- and so ill-timed, wouldn't you know it, to coincide with the annual rigors of Santa Claus. 

My Dad, whose health has been uncertain this year, has been talking quite a bit about his memories of the Great Depression - particularly his still-sharp remembrance of sharing his lunchtime sandwich with the WPA workers building sidewalks in the Yonkers of his youth. I'll see if I can draw out a few more 1930s memories when we gather around the tree again tonight and tomorrow. Perhaps in his tales, like the scenes from Dickens in the 1840s or Capra in the 1940s, there will be echoes - or shadows as Scrooge might've put it - of the America of 2009.

And maybe, there will be some redemption as well.

Darkness on the Edge of Town isn't George Bailey's song, but it's redolent of the last period of sharp American decline, the 1970s - and it's the Christmas carol I'm humming this week:

Some folks are born into a good life,

Other folks get it anyway, anyhow,

I lost my money and I lost my wife,

Them things don't seem to matter much to me now.

Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop,

I'll be on that hill with everything I got,

Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost,

I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost,

For wanting things that can only be found

In the darkness on the edge of town.