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In my household, a loud crash will almost certainly be followed by a slightly slurred “I’m all right! I’m all! Right!”   If something curious happens, my husband is bound to remark, “Well this is a very inneresting situation!”  A compliment is always answered with a coquettish, “This old thing?  Why, I only wear this when I don’t care how I look!”

No, we are not drunks or abusers of pharmaceuticals.  Rather, we have seen the Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” far too many times.  We can literally quote the entire movie by heart.  Don’t ask me how I know this.

It is a tradition, in my Jewish family, to watch the film every year on Christmas.  Just the opening credits are enough to make me crave Chinese food.  I’ve probably seen this movie at least fifty times, no kidding.  And yet with each viewing I cry, “No, Uncle Billy! Hold on to the money!”  Whenever I hear Zuzu recite her famous concluding line, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” I cry.  Every. Time.  My husband and I have so completely assimilated IAWL into our consciousnesses that it now utterly transcends Christmas, and is quoted incessantly, even when it’s out-of-season as a Fourth of July fruitcake.

But why?  Why this movie, and not “Christmas Vacation,” or “A Christmas Story,” or “The Hebrew Hammer”? I mean, does it reveal something about the fabric of my family that we all so strongly relate to the grouch malcontent who feels that he is inadequate at the life he never wanted anyway because he always suspected he was too good for it and was meant for something greater but that it’s okay in the end because he loves his spouse and family with a beautiful, soft-focus fervor? Mmmm maybe.

Then something happened that helped me to understand my love for IAWL and its sentimental hogwash. I read my daughter the picture book Knuffle Bunny for the 87 millionth time.

Every time we read this book and Trixie loses her bunny Harper looks very distressed and points to the tantruming toddler and says, quietly, “Sad.” And every time Trixie’s daddy extracts Knuffle Bunny from the laundromat washing machine Harper screams “BUNNY!!!!”, standing up and performing an ecstatic fist-pumping hora of celebration. The thing is, her concern and then subsequent celebrations seem to become more dramatic and elaborate with each reading.

Funny how stories can have that effect on you. How even when you know what’s going to happen there is something so cathartic, so soothing, about experiencing both the trouble and the resolution  from the safe distance of observer. It’s like practice for real-life feelings, which is probably part of what I love so much about stories, why I always have at least a toe in one fictional world or another. As in, maybe if we just go through this cycle enough times in our imaginary worlds of choice then our emotional muscle memory will know what to do when the trouble is actually ours.

Confusion about what to do with one’s life, ambivalence about the roads not taken, money troubles, bunny troubles. We can all relate. And those who can’t…well they’re probably nothing but warped, frustrated old men.


Amy Shearn AMY SHEARN is the author of the novel How Far Is the Ocean from Here. She lives in Brooklyn with a husband, a baby, and a dog. Visit her online at amyshearn.com.

31 Responses to “It’s a “It’s a Wonderful Life” Life”

  1. Fields says:

    Lovely work again, Shearn!

  2. Matt says:

    My favorite Christmas movie is, hands-down, The Proposition. I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life exactly once, and do not intend for there to be a second.

    I also watch Schindler’s List every Thanksgiving. Obviously, I am someone who really knows how to celebrate the holidays.

  3. suzy says:

    Always love reading your work.

  4. Becky Palapala says:

    I was basically ant-Christmas-movie for most of my life, especially since so many of them are so cheesy. I found a kindred spirit in “A Christmas Story” (a family tradition, now, thanks almost entirely to me).

    But in the last few years, I’ve been getting in touch with my inner old lady.

    “White Christmas” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” were revelations to me the first time I saw them. Now I look forward to them every year.

  5. Dana says:

    The first time I saw It’s A Wonderful Life was also my birthday AND the day my close friend and only co-worker was fired. I think it must have been about 1988. I was so sad, and somehow that movie made me feel so much better about everything. (And helping me curse my boss who I sometimes still refer to as Potter). We quote the movie year round too, “Say brainless!” “drafty old house” “‘SCUSE ME!” and “Why’d we have to go and have all these kids anyway?” (Particularly silly, since we have no children.)

    As secular/heathen as we are, we adore the Christmas holiday and it just wouldn’t be complete without viewing IAWL, A Christmas Carol (we have at least 3 versions on dvd) Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, A Christmas Story and one of my new favorites, Elf.

    “Funny how stories can have that effect on you. How even when you know what’s going to happen there is something so cathartic, so soothing, about experiencing both the trouble and the resolution from the safe distance of observer.”

    I agree wholeheartedly and I’m going to give myself a break the next time I cry at the end of a movie I’ve seen dozens of times.

    • Amy Shearn says:

      Awesome! I love the line “Why’d we have to go and have all these kids anyway?” a lot. He’s just such a crab! Also great: “S’cuse me, s’cuse me, s’cuse me…I burped.” Brilliant. I also very much like “I’ll show you some kissing that’ll put hair on your head!” And oh…the whole thing.

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    You know, I’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life? Not even a scene. Maybe I should do that sometime. Probably on Christmas.

    My two very favourite parts of The Hebrew Hammer:

    ‘Shabbat shalom, motherfuckers!’

    And, or course,

    ‘Me crutch! Me crutch! Me crrr-uuuuuuuuuutch- fuck.’

    • Amy Shearn says:

      Sir, this is very sad. You should see it post haste, along with the SNL sketch with Dana Carvey performing a “lost ending” wherein George Bailey kicks the crap out of Mr. Potter. I command you!

  7. Dana says:

    Simon – you should see it. “You hurt my sore ear Mr. Gower!”

    And I’m sure this very surprising but I’ve not only not seen The Hebrew Hammer, I’ve never heard of it before. With dialogue like that, it’s going on the Netflix queue post haste!

  8. Don Mitchell says:

    Hah, Amy. Very good.

    I detest It’s a Wonderful Life, but that’s just me. Don’t take it personally. No, really. Don’t.

    Now this line of yours:

    “Funny how stories can have that effect on you. How even when you know what’s going to happen there is something so cathartic, so soothing, about experiencing both the trouble and the resolution from the safe distance of observer.”

    is fabulous. It could also serve as an insightful comment on (anybody’s) religious texts. Don’t you think?

  9. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    I love “then our emotional muscle memory will know what to do when the trouble is actually ours” and I hope so too.

    That or I’m waiting to one day say to someone “Happy New Year to you – in jail!”

  10. Hubs says:

    You want a shock Amy? I think this is a swell post.

  11. Judy Prince says:

    “It’s like practice for real-life feelings, which is probably part of what I love so much about stories, why I always have at least a toe in one fictional world or another. As in, maybe if we just go through this cycle enough times in our imaginary worlds of choice then our emotional muscle memory will know what to do when the trouble is actually ours.”

    Beautifully expressed, Amy. Thank you.

  12. Irene Zion says:

    Amy,
    I love this movie.
    Now that someone “bought” it and it can only be played once a season, I have to figure out a way to Tape it so that Victor doesn’t make fun of me.

    As far as the “Bunny” thing goes…my dog, Brooklyn, had Ducky. We have washing and drying machines with the window just at her head height. Whenever Ducky had to go in the wash, she would stand in the laundry room and watch Ducky whirl by. When Ducky went into the dryer, she would step sideways and watch Ducky whirl by. Only when it was all over and you handed her Ducky, did she leave the laundry room to go sit on the couch holding Ducky in her mouth.
    Unfortunately, this all ended with Kimchee. Kimchee is our emergency back-up dog. She ate Ducky almost immediately. I bought probably 8 Duckies, but Kimchee ate them all. Now Brooklyn carries around a chew bone, but doesn’t chew it. When Kimchee gets it and chews it up, I hand Brooklyn another chew bone. It’s sad, really.

    • Amy Shearn says:

      First of all, I love your dogs’ names. Second of all, I love when dogs get attached to toys. It seems so cute and foreign to me, since our dog’s response to toys has almost always been to immediately rip out their squeaky little hearts and leave cotton guts strewn all over the place. Though, I’m sure she means it in a sweet, loving way…?

  13. Helen Gocher says:

    Amy, I have found a kindred spirit in you. I didn’t think anyone could love It’s A Wonderful Life as much as I do. No one. Not even my younger Christmas-loving sister, who knows every line like I do and plays Mary to my George, Joseph to my Clarence, Ernie to my Bert, who waits with baited breath for me to end most songs with “What did you wish for when you threw that roooooock?”. I’m not Jewish, but I’d gladly order some take-out dim sum if you wanted to come over and watch the movie with me this coming December.

    I got into college because of It’s A Wonderful Life. Yup. This is not a joke. The most stress-inducing part of application process is, hands down, the essay, right? I bit every last fingernail to the bone, agonizing over what kind of introspective, self-promoting piece garbage I’d have to write about myself. But then, in the winter of 1989, I found my ace in the hole on an admissions application: “If you could change and fact or facet of human history, what would it be and why?”

    You can probably guess what I wrote. Change, schmange. Didn’t this institution of higher learning understand that each person’s life is so purposefully woven into the lives of all those around them? Had these educators forgotten what most of us learn from our mothers as children? Mistakes are to be learned from. Not erased. We don’t get a do-over button. We don’t get to see our lives as if we were never born. But George Bailey did and it made him thankful. George Bailey is the key to appreciating life. At least my life, and probably your life, too. Our wonderful lives.

  14. Mindy Macready says:

    As I have aged, James Stewart , Jimmy Stewart.. his voice, his unique twanging voice just destroys me. His Aw shucks, and look at his shoes or points somewhere ..then that voice…what is wrong with him or me. If you allow it , it can become a mantra like ‘Tom’s Diner’ only it comes off as ” Mr. Potter” over and over and over or “Ya know”.

    Sad I miss out on good movies…’Harvey’.. would have cast Joel Mccrea

    ‘Mr. Smith goes to Washingon’.. again Joel Mccrea

    Gary Cooper came dangerously close…perhaps its the “Aw Shucks” actors I have a problem with
    Henry Fonda he was kind of Aw shucks but he had a quick pace to his voice.

    I haven’t seen ‘It’s a Wonderful Life” in 20 years just because I could not bear to see Jimmy Stewart act of even speak…who the hell talks like that! Gilbert Gottfried that son of a bitch , I would just love to take him by the nap of the neck and shake him ..”now quit the act Gilbert! talk normal”

    It is like Jimmy Stewart had some sound instrument stuck in his throat that he talked that way…damn it makes me angry. If I had been a Hollywood mogul back in the day , I would have ran him out of Hollywood the only roles he would have gotten are the ‘Ma an Pa Kettle’ series of movies,
    guess who plays Pa.

    I am sorry , I am glad you have a tradition and your family has seen this a ba zillion times but what I wanted to ask since you can quote every line and the such is why you have not gone stark raving mad when you quote or hear Jimmy Stewart’s voice?

    does anyone else feel that way about Jimmy Stewart?

  15. Marni Grossman says:

    Amy- I’m always so happy when I see your name on a post. Harper is obviously brilliant, just like her Mommy.

  16. uh, oh, does it reflect poorly on me that my most often repeated IAWL phrase is:
    ALRIGHT YOU PIXIES!!?

  17. The Big Boppa says:

    I recently cried while reading a story book rendition of “Sunrise Sunset”, a song I have heard a billion times.
    I also liked the reference to the “Hebrew Hammer.” And you know that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is worse than hard drugs!

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