"The Dead" and "It's a Wonderful Life"
Fantastic call to get John Huston's film version of Joyce's masterpiece of a short story, "The Dead", released on DVD for Christmas. However, I don't ever see "The Dead" finding a place amongst Christmas classics because its melancholy is too evident, and there's no tacked-on happy ending to leave people with a warm Christmas glow. Structurally, it's the opposite of "It's a Wonderful Life", at least from the point in the latter where George Bailey is considering suicide. "Wonderful Life" really starts there, at a point where someone is lost in solitude contemplating death and ends in a joyful holiday party. Needless to say, "The Dead" begins at such a party and ends with a man contemplating, among other things, the inevitability of death.
Still, I'm one of those people who thinks that the singing and the dollar bills at the end of "It's a Wonderful Life" doesn't wipe away the disquieting questions that are raised during the course of the film, similiar to those raised by "The Dead", questions of what a life is worth, and how to live under the constant shadow of death. Why our favorite Christmas stories address these big and morbid questions, I don't know. ("A Christmas Carol" also hangs death over Ebenezer Scrooge's head to push him into reconsidering what he values in life.)
In both, the characters receive a real shock to the system by contemplating "other lives" of their wives, in a telling bit of detail. The disquieting experience of contemplating the life that your nearest and dearest has or could have without you is a common one, I'm sure, one that brings up feelings of jealousy, but also is a cold reminder of the transistory nature of life--your spouse's life will go on even if you were to disappear tomorrow. In "The Dead", Gabriel Conroy is faced with the knowledge that his wife had this profoundly upsetting experience before she married him, an experience he never knew about. The knowledge sort of paralyzes him, and on that realistic and ambigious note, the story just ends, leaving the reader alone with the same sad questions that Conroy is asking himself.
The way that "Wonderful Life" disposes of this plot point is probably the weakest part of the movie. When the question of who his wife would be if he had never been there arises, it's summarily dismissed by showing that she would be a spinster, which the movie makes more than clear means that she wouldn't have much of a life at all. It's a logic-defying conclusion that points to the pat answer to George Bailey's existential crisis, that answer being, "We find meaning in our life through other people." This is exactly the answer that eludes Conroy at the end of "The Dead", because it is in fact, too pat. After all, he has been rejected momentarily for the memory of a dead man, exactly the sort of thing that will frustrate your attempts to find meaning in other people.
That being said, I think the simplest interpretation of "It's a Wonderful Life" doesn't get at why people find themselves drawn to this film. Sure, on the surface the movie seems to say that all you need to find meaning in life is love and community, but it also seems to slyly recognize this is a gentle lie we tell ourselves in order to get through the hard times. I can't quite put my finger on why this is the impression I get from the film, though I think that Jimmy Stewart's manic and brillant performance has a lot to do with it. Nothing really in the movie ever makes up for the outpouring of empathy the audience feels when George Bailey realizes that no make how hard you work in life, no matter how good a person you are, there is no way to protect yourself completely from failure, and subsequently no bulwark to build against death itself. Or that's how I see it, anyway.