"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I must have been 9 or 10 years old. It was Christmas or only a few days before. My parents had taken me along on a final whirlwind of holiday grocery shopping and last-minute gift buying. I was left alone at Tower Records and happened upon a VHS copy of Frank Capra’s holiday classic — and my mother’s favorite film — “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the spirit of the season, I bought the tape.
At home that night, I presented the movie without wrapping or bow to my mother, and we watched it immediately.
But when the tape began to roll and the wood-post sign declaring “You Are Now in Bedford Falls” appeared on the screen, it was clear something was wrong. Gone were the familiar white sky, the gray snowdrift on the median, the almost black oak and its ashen limbs reaching out from the background. Instead there was a pink sky, illuminated as if from behind like a paper lantern, a display of pastels highlighting the snow drift, a landscape washed in peach and ochre.
It turned out I’d bought a colorized version by mistake — a Ted Turner project from the late ’80s, it appeared. My mother didn’t stop the tape. I’m guessing, but I bet we watched the movie through to the end — a courtesy to me and an endorsement of my experiment in generosity. But something was missing from my mother’s enjoyment. Though I couldn’t have known exactly what at the time, it was evident that something in Donna Reed’s rosy cheeks, something in Lionel Barrymore’s improbably red nose, violated the original. And it wasn’t just aesthetic, which would have been the case with any colorized black and white. It was philosophical, elemental.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is often remembered, as one New York Times review put it just after its release, as “a parable of virtue being its own reward.” It’s a film designed to please and pander; something to warm your feet by, but not anything to scrutinize too carefully. Every Christmas it airs quietly in the background of family meals and board games and sibling spats. It’s basically the Westminster Dog Show of American cinema, and it’s taken just about as seriously. And so perhaps you’re thinking it doesn’t deserve much study. But despite the film’s obvious and easy pleasures — the gymnasium floor opening unexpectedly to send Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart spilling into the swimming pool underneath; the cop-and-cabbie duo, Bert and Ernie, leering at Violet, the town flirt, over the hood of the cab; Reed and Stewart’s off-key duet of “Buffalo Gals” — it casts a darker hue on its subject than we often remember. It’s not merely about camaraderie and Christmas and good cheer; it’s also about a crisis of small-town business, the economics of family and society, and debt, labor and the sacrifices and responsibilities of middle-class ambition.
As early as childhood, George Bailey dreams big. He subscribes to National Geographic, studies geography and plans adventures. But just as soon as he starts to conceive of a life outside his hometown, he’s held back by debt — both emotional and financial.
In our first encounter with young George Bailey, he and his friends are sledding down a hill onto a frozen pond. After some taunting, George’s younger brother, Harry, screws up enough nerve to shove off. The camera follows him down the slope, across the ice and into a weak spot at the far end, where he sinks into the freezing water. George dives in to save him. But his virtuosity isn’t rewarded, as the New York Times review would have you believe; it’s punished by way of pneumonia and a deaf ear that haunts George through adulthood. (His little brother, by contrast, is later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in World War II; George was ineligible to serve as a result of his “trick ear,” which he got in saving his brother.)
This, his first selfless act, conscribes George to a kind of stewardship that comes to define his adulthood and indeed his life. Over the rest of the film, whenever he does something for others, it is he who shoulders the responsibility (and suffers the punishment) of debt. When young George’s boss at the pharmacy, Mr. Gower, accidentally fills a local woman’s prescription with poison, he doesn’t reward George for uncovering the mistake. Instead, he boxes George in his deaf ear until it bleeds.
And so it goes for most of George’s life. Later in adulthood, once he’s finally ready “[to shake] the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and … see the world,” George’s ambitions are again beset by the burden of his goodwill. Just after George picks up a trunk to last him “a thousand and one nights, with plenty of room here for labels from Italy and Baghdad,” his travels are forestalled by his father’s sudden stroke and eventual death. George Bailey, who “never thinks about himself,” ends up saddled once again to his father’s old business — “this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe.” Never mind the fact that he and his brother had arranged for a trade-off that would send George to college for four years while his brother took over his old job at their father’s Building and Loan office. It’s George in the end, not Harry, who stays, despite his indignation for the job and his growing hatred for Bedford Falls.
Even George’s honeymoon is waylaid by the cost of his generosity. He and his fiancée, Mary, are in the car, about to catch a train for New York, when a crowd gathers outside the Building and Loan demanding their deposits back. Rather than let the Building and Loan go bankrupt, George ends up doling out to the townspeople the cash he and Mary would have spent on their vacation. At the end of the day, they’re left with two single bills, and all George gets in return for his selflessness is a cheap imitation of a honeymoon — travel posters on the walls of the drafty, abandoned mansion at 320 Sycamore, a sign that reads “Bridal Suite” tacked to the front door and Hawaiian guitar music on the record player: the hollow emblems of “beautiful places, romantic places, places George wants to go,” but never does.
George and his family eventually take up residence in the old house, despite his earlier protest — “I wouldn’t live in it as a ghost” — the implication being that that’s exactly what he’s becoming the longer he stays in Bedford Falls.
Eventually the angel Clarence comes down to show George what life would be like if he were, in fact, a ghost — if, that is, he’d never been born. Without his generosity, the quiet little town (predictably) falls prey to evil Mr. Potter, who replaces the movie house and pharmacy with a juke joint and a strip club. It’s a more exciting town, even though it’s beset by depravity and hedonism. George’s old friends are now alcoholics and misers; his wife is a lonely librarian; his mother is the spinster proprietor of a boarding house.
George famously learns from this episode the value of family, the interdependence of good deeds, his own value in society and so forth. Or so we’re told. The lesson actually marks another episode in which George is punished, not rewarded, for his generosity. He’s spent his entire life trying to get out of Bedford Falls. He finally decides to kill himself, and he stands at the bridge railing, looking out over the icy water below. But his suicide attempt — what Sartre regarded as man’s most autonomous act — fails. The angel Clarence offers George another exchange — this time of one life for another. Clarence throws himself into the river, knowing that George will sacrifice his own life for someone else’s. George does jump in after Clarence and ends up saving him. But he’s not rewarded, as the old New York Times review would have it. Suicide, George Bailey’s most willful attempt to leave Bedford Falls, leaves him even further indebted to the people trapping him there. Clarence shows George what life would be like if he’d never been born, and what George sees is not how much Bedford Falls owes him, but how much he owes Bedford Falls. Clarence’s ruse exploits not only George’s selflessness but also his tragic compulsion to satisfy debt. Virtue in this scenario is not only not its own reward, it’s its own cost — a commodity that is both finite and fungible.
At the heart of the film’s philosophy, therefore, is an economy of goodwill, which guides both the literal commerce that is George Bailey’s business at the Building and Loan and the figurative commerce of social, familial and romantic exchanges that compel the film’s comedic and sentimental overtures.
As we’ve seen, George Bailey’s generosity toward his brother results in the exchange of one brother’s adventures for another’s (Harry goes to Europe; George stays home) and an exchange of a son’s dreams for his father’s legacy (George saves his father’s business, but never goes to college). Even in comic scenes, we see this economy at play. George and Mary are walking home from the high school dance, and they are both wet from having fallen in the pool. They are drying off, Mary in a robe and George in an oversized football jersey, and George accidentally steps on the belt of Mary’s robe. When she continues forward unaware, she steps right out of the robe and then scampers into the rhododendrons to hide. George is left standing there with the robe in his hands, a naked girl behind the bushes and a “very interesting situation” to resolve. “In order to get this robe,” he offers, “I’ll make a deal with you.” We have a hunch what kind of a deal George has in mind. But before he can strike an accord, he gets word that his father’s had a stroke. George Bailey being George Bailey, he tosses Mary the robe and rushes off to tend to his father. One minor exchange is replaced by a major one, George’s romantic ambitions giving way to his familial responsibilities, which in turn take the form of social and financial debts into which the film sinks him further. “They’ll vote with Potter to close the Building and Loan,” the office is soon informed, “unless George stays on as executive secretary.”
When the time finally comes for someone to do for George as he’s done for everyone else, it’s an act motivated more by personal ambition than by goodwill. The angel Clarence — who “hasn’t got his wings yet” — is sent to Earth to save George from killing himself. But as naïve and kindhearted as Clarence may be, he’s also ambitious. His trip to Bedford Falls isn’t motivated merely by charity, but by promotion: “If I should accomplish this mission,” Clarence asks the senior angel, “might I perhaps win my wings? I’ve been waiting over 200 hundred years now, sir, and people are beginning to talk.” Read: What do I get if I save this guy?
Indeed the pursuit of his “wings” becomes Clarence’s, and eventually one of the film’s major preoccupations. At the end of the film, George’s daughter Zuzu famously pronounces, “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” By which we’re reminded that Clarence’s wings, like George’s charity, are a commodity, able to be exchanged (and existent only insomuch as they can be traded) for goods and services — in this case, Clarence’s having shown George “the way.”
When George returns home on Christmas Eve, he’s met by family and friends who finally do return the charity he’s offered them for so long. His old pal Sam Wainwright wires him 25,000 dollars. Everyone in town shows up with cash to save the Building and Loan. Finally, it seems, George Bailey’s virtue is being rewarded.
But lurking behind this scene is another exchange — indeed, another reminder of the tenuous economy of goodwill that governs this film. The only reason George needs the town’s charity is because his office has lost a deposit, which Mr. Potter has found. But rather than reward George with the lost money (we know exactly where it is, even if George doesn’t), the film punishes him by sending him further into debt to the community that has shackled him for so many years. The town’s donations to help save George’s business do not merely constitute an act of kindness but are also another commercial exchange — one which puts George even deeper in debt to his ersatz creditors. Off screen, meanwhile, is Mr. Potter, the capitalist, left holding the money as he’s always done.
Now, I doubt my mother would have given this film the Marxist reading I’m inclined to make. Nor did she probably think of it fundamentally as an indictment of capitalism. But she called a few weeks ago to say she had seen it on TV recently, and wasn’t it darker than she remembered? It’s funny, yes, she said. And flirtatious. And utterly charming. But reminiscing on that colorized version we’d watched one time, we were both struck by the contrast between how the film is remembered — rather colorfully, that is — and how it actually plays.
As you watch the movie this year, the broadcast interrupted by ads for cars and anti-aging creams and cell phones and sandwich wraps, take it not as a piece of sentimental fluff, but for what it can be, if not also what it is — a serious reminder of the sacrifices other people make for our comfort and contentment, a sometimes uncomfortable demonstration of the delicate balance between debt and charity and a portrait not of an angel who finally gets his wings but of a working man who never does.
To put it in Clarence’s words, “In heaven” — if there is such a place — “we don’t use money.”
W. Andrew Ewell is Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at DePaul University. He lives in Chicago with his wife, the writer Hannah Pittard.More W. Andrew Ewell.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)