Thursday, 27 December 2012

Worse Than Drowning?

This post involves "It's a Wonderful Life" plot spoilers.

Last night a party from the Historical House went across the fields to the nearest Fellow Historical House (14th c, mostly rebuilt early 17th c) and watched most of "It's a Wonderful Life" before sitting down to St. Stephen's/Boxing Day supper.

B.A. had never seen "It's a Wonderful Life," and I hadn't seen it for well over a decade. B.A., who admittedly was well-primed with wine, thought it absolutely fantastic. I was struck by how very often Providence frustrates the hero's plans and how Mary actively worked against them by countering George's wishes with her own wishes. By the way, I know it looked like it worked for Mary, but playing "Buffalo Gals" on the stereo four years after singing it with your crush object is kind of pathetic. Also pathetic is embroidering a cushion with the drunken rantings of your crush object and leaving it where he can see it.

What is not pathetic is being a middle-aged Single librarian in glasses. The most--perhaps the only--annoying part of "It's a Wonderful Life" is the lead up to the awful revelation of what George Bailey's non-existence would have meant. (PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!)

We go from random acquaintances of George, to the moral health of the town of Bedford Falls, to his brother, to his wife and kids. There seems to be a progression: Nick is nasty, not nice; George's old boss did 20 years in the joint for murder; Bedford Falls is not a nice family town but Las Vegas, New York; Violet has gone professional; Harry drowned at nine, which meant a whole lot of American sailors died (although, as no-one ever mentions, this also meant a bunch of German pilots survived--Jawohl!); Ma Bailey is a lonely, crabbed old landlady, and as for Mary--!

Ah, Mary. Not only did Harry Bailey drown at the age of nine, but Mary became an Old Maid and a Librarian and Near-Sighted. How Mary would have become near-sighted in the absence of George is one consequence left unexplained.

Possibly I am being unfair. The real horror is not that Mary is an Old Maid--and, incidentally, she could have married Sam Wainwright, although I admit it would have taken all his gold to gild the pill of having to listen to him shout "Hee-haw" for the next 50 years--but that she doesn't recognize George. Even Mary does not know George. And if Mary doesn't know George, Mary doesn't love George, which is terrifically sad for George, who loves Mary to distraction. Let us focus on that, especially if we are Single, and very especially if we are Single Librarians.

Anyway, it is no longer 1946, and none of us live in Bedford Falls, a place from which, we must remember, George Bailey was always longing to escape. So watch "It's a Wonderful Life" without a pang, and don't forget to giggle at Mary's mysteriously unexplained glasses.


Elaine W. said...

I always assumed that unmarried Mary went near-sighted because she spent much more time reading than married-with-kids Mary ever had time for.
I don't know whether reading actually causes myopia, but I think this is what the movie implies. :)

Ally said...

Thank you, thank you! I've never been a fan of the movie, but even less so since becoming a librarian! The old maid stereotypes don't personally bother me THAT much yet (I'm only 30, and in the Protestant southern USA world I live in, that might be an old maid, but it's not really) but I get annoyed none the less (I have quite a few single librarian friends who are in their 40s whom I suspect get more annoyed than I)

I can't speak to why anyone would have needed glasses because of being a librarian in the old days, but my eye doctor does want me wearing my glasses all the time now because he says that my eyes have gotten worse because of spending the entire day on the computer. (then again, one eye is near sighted and one eye is far sighted, but I think the answer is whatever eye problems you have will be exaggerated by the amount of time spent on a computer)

AMJ said...

Seraphic . . . I don't think I've ever disagreed with you before and it's breaking my heart. I love "It's a Wonderful Life" and I wish George Bailey was real and I was Mary. I've seen the movie so many times, they feel like old friends (if you mention being rooted in reality, I will cry).
George seeing what the world would be like without him, I think, is awesome. Everyone brings unique gifts to the table and without us, our families and friends' lives would be different, maybe not as drastically bad as in the movie but . . . If I didn't have an elderly grandma who was put into a nursing home when I was small to inspire my desire to be a nurse and then take a car ride with my mother and let her drive knowing that she likes to take the most roundabout way to the shops and witnessing an enormous car accident where I was able to hold an elderly man's hand and comfort him as his body was pinned inside his mangled car while waiting for the jaws of life, who would have? I did not save his life but I think I brought him some comfort and that makes my existence worthwhile. The movie illustrates the impact our lives can have on others, for good or ill.

"George Bailey, I will love you till the day I die."

Maria said...

Wow AMJ, that's quite a story!
I agree that it's a really fabulous film. I find George Bailey admirable because he gives up so much for others, including but not limited to his family, and he has to live with the memory of his shattered dreams but never takes it out on anybody. I wish I could do half as well dealing with my own pains and disappointments. And I would loooove to marry someone like that!
As for Mary, it's perfectly logical: a lifetime of reading the tiny print on those old file cards in poorly lit spaces instead of staring off into the distance to see what her 5 (6?) children were up to did her eyesight in. Ergo, glasses!
I am a day or so late reporting on this, but the family reunion went quite well yesterday. I wore a fantastic dress and no one made any untoward comments about how I was still single. Phew.

Seraphic said...

Actually, I very much like the film. I just object to the implication that being an "Old Maid" ("She's an Old Maid, George") who works in the Bedford Falls Library would have been a hideous fate for Mary.

April said...

I also watched "It's a Wonderful Life" for the first time this Christmas.

Am I the only one who found it distasteful how Mary "actively worked against [George's wishes]" (as Seraphic put it) to achieve her own wish of marrying him? If Mary's love for George were perhaps more perfectly unselfish (since I can't deny that she loves him in an obvious and devoted way), wouldn't she have encouraged him to fulfill his lifelong dream of traveling the world before trying to "snare" him to settle down with her before he was ready?

Similarly, I would not want a man to marry me out of a sense of duty or a disinclination to hurt me or a desire to make me happy. I would only want a man to marry me because he is crazy about me and wants to marry me more than anything because he thinks his life would be better with me in it. (Of course if children enter the picture the situation changes dramatically, but I am speaking of a chaste relationship like Mary and George's). there are

Anyone else have similar thoughts? Am I expecting too much of these characters?

Seraphic said...

I only noticed that this time around. But, you know, all Mary did was chuck a rock through the window. It would seem that she spent FOUR YEARS waiting for George to come and call. FOUR YEARS. That's a long time to obey The Rules, which of course she did, it being 1928-1932.

Mary seemed pretty excited by the honeymoon trip, too, although she did the absolute right thing in coming up with an idea of saving the business.

Maybe Mary didn't wish that George would never leave town. Maybe she just wished that she could marry George and have a bunch of kids.

I'm fond of Mary, really. It's not her fault Frank Capra filmed her through cheesecloth or vaseline on the lens or whatever he did to make her look all soft and shiny and Perfect American Wife perfect.

fifi said...

I always thought the point about Mary-without-George was not that she was a pitiable old maid, but that she was a fragile, thwarted woman because she had been formed by a hostile and threatening environment, i.e. Pottersville. To me it's not the glasses that are most striking, but the absence of her sparkle and her wit and her beauty. They have been quashed by the tawdry, oversexed, greedy environment in which she had to fight for her living in one of the few respectable professions left in town. I think the main point of the whole sequence is to expose Pottersville as the materialism and pleasure-driven poster child for the culture of death. George Bailey has kept it at bay. It's not that without him good women like Mary don't get married, that's too simplistic. It's that without the honest, simple folks who live lives of decency and courage, the culture of death takes over, and no one is safe (women and children being especially vulnerable)and beauty and culture and loving homes and all the things Mary stands for symbolically in the movie can't thrive. Mary is not pitiable because she's an old maid. She's pitiable because she goes through life without being safe, the only place she can even turn to for help in the movie is this big, unruly bar. Heck, maybe she wears glasses to deter all the lechers who have been stumbling out of Pottersville's strip joints onto her path for the last thirty years.

fifi said...

Also, although it's not shown I think it's very much implied that George and Mary have grown up together and have a lot of little daily encounters and contact like you would if you lived in small-town America back then. You meet on the street and in the store and at friend's houses and weddings and nothing happens in anyone's life that you don't hear about. I think people were more used to that at the time the film was made, and also films of that era don't always fill in those gaps the way that films now do, showing every little encounter. George's mother tells him Mary "lights up like a firefly every time you're in the room," for example. That implies that Mother Bailey has seen them together in that casual environment. The scene in Mary's living room with the record player is the next time we see her after the high school dance, but I don't think it's supposed to be the next time George has seen her. They do some catching-up talk so we know she's been away at college, but that's just as much to fill in the audience as it is George making small talk (or not making it, in that particular scene).

Also, I don't really get the impression that Mary is "acting against George's wishes" at any point in time. In the scene with the telephone he's being incredibly cranky, but it's not because he doesn't like her, it's because he likes her and doesn't want to admit it. He showed up there on his own power after all, and he liked her at the high school dance, it's just that having to take over the B&L and dreaming about the future have made him put her on the back burner, maybe because he thinks she will tie him to Bedford Falls. Mary has to give him a little assist, which is why the phone call with Sam is so brilliant. She's not making him do anything he doesn't want to do, she's just bringing it into the open.

EM said...

I love the movie and I am in love with Jimmy Stewart. I would like to formally request that he be the next Swashbuckling Protector!

Christine said...

I'm a Catholic, single Librarian in her late-2o's, and I love "It's a Wonderful Life." Of course, the stereotype of librarians as the "old maid" profession irks me. I like what Fifi mentioned, that perhaps the stiflingly cruel environment of Potterville squashed Mary's joy right out of her.

Seraphic - I like that you mention how forward Mary's placement of the embroidery and phonograph are, in terms of her affection for George. Nonetheless, perhaps they had, in fact, more of a full history in those four years than the audience is aware of.

EM - I'm in love with a 20-something George Bailey, too. <3