Now that I have your attention, I wanted to tell you, in case you haven’t noticed lately, that we have a serious problem with “sex in the city,” and for that matter, in the burbs and backwaters as well. The problem is, we no longer leave anything to the imagination. From peeks under the sheets to prime-time commercials hawking the latest and greatest impotence remedy, it’s all out in the open for curious eyes to see.
The “sexperts” say it’s better to talk about previously taboo topics in cold and clinical terms and to the show sex act in all its technicolor splendor. After all, we wouldn’t want our children to be fumbling around during their “first time” unsure of what to do next. Good grief, the fabric of our society might completely unravel! Our species might even become extinct!
Yet, as with anything powerful and mysterious which is reduced to “mere facts,” human sexuality loses much of it’s innate power when the curtain is pulled back completely and the surprise spoiled. And these days, I believe, we are spoiling the surprise for our children. They know the truth, as spoken by G.K. Chesterton:
“The first two facts which a healthy boy or girl feels about sex are these: first that it is beautiful and then that it is dangerous.”
But what to do? Do we completely shut down the flow of information and images and risk promotion of an unhealthy (and unbiblical) gnostic dualism which denies the good of the body? Or, as the “sexperts” would say, should we just lay it all out there for everyone to see and hope for the best?
As in all things, perhaps there is a via media. May I make a suggestion to parents, youth ministers and educators? Next time you plan to present information on the sticky wicket of human sexuality to kids, lay aside the scare tactics, “promise to wait” campaigns and other popular approaches for a moment and consider showing a positive, balance and robust view of human sexuality. And where would we find that? Well, in all places, Bedford Falls, New York!
When It’s a Wonderful Life was made in 1946, there were many more restrictions on what could be said and seen on screen than there are today. Yet, somehow Frank Capra and cast produced several scenes which sizzle and pop with sexual electricity while keeping the details “under wraps.” The effect is to excite, but also to remind that sexuality is a mighty river, capable of doing much good, but one that nevertheless must be channeled and kept within its banks. In particular, there are three scenes which portray a balanced and healthy human sexuality which are worth considering:
Near the beginning of the movie, George is preparing to leave Bedford Falls to “see the world” and runs into his friends Bert the cop and Ernie the cabdriver (get it, Bert and Ernie?). Violet (played by Gloria Grahame), the town siren, comes sauntering along the sidewalk in a dress, which for the day, must have been sheerer and shorter than average. The three men are instantly mesmerized by Violet’s charm, and George , wide-eyed and slack-jawed, compliments Violet on the nice dress she’s wearing.
“This old thing?” Violet replies. “I only wear it when I don’t care how I look!” (yeah right).
She then proceeds down the sidewalk followed by 3 pairs of eyes. Is this lust? No, in my opinion, at least at this point, it’s still basic, God-given physiology. To top it off, as she crosses the street, a gentleman of “Viagra age” is crossing in the opposite direction. He too is stopped dead in his tracks by the glory of Violet’s passing, and as a result, is almost hit by a Model-T, one of the funniest moments in the movie. One wonders whether there are some extra vitamins and minerals in the water supply–Bedford Falls sounds like my kind of town!
But wait, there’s more! George and his friends suddenly snap out of their trance and realize they must get on about their business. Ernie asks Bert if he would like to ride around town with him and George. He replies, “Uh, no thanks. I gotta go home and see what the wife is doing.”
Hee-haw, there it is, the kind of balance I’m talking about! As attractive and tempting as Violet may be, Bert knows that the right thing to do is go home and “see what the wife is doing.” The scene reminds me of what a Harding University Bible professor (don’t worry, I’m not going to “out” you) once said during a remarkably candid moment: “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite as long as you eat at home!”
2. The Hydrangea Bush Scene
A little later on, George has become reaquainted with Mary, the younger sister of an old high school friend. Mary is all grown up now, and she and George have just danced in a Charleston contest at brother Harry Bailey’s graduation party. The two (and eventually the whole party) ended up in a swimming pool beneath the gym floor thanks to the hijinks of one of Mary’s spurned suitors (trivia note: that spurned suitor is none other than Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer of Our Gang fame).
Wearing a borrowed, oversized football uniform, George carries Mary’s soaked dress and walks her home, while the pair sing Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight? What is Mary wearing? Well, apparently nothing but her birthday suit and a borrowed bathrobe–the stage is now set for some playful sexual tension.
At one point, George “accidently” steps on Mary’s robe. Is it coming off? No, not yet. George apologizes for his “clumsiness” and Mary then extends her hand to him for a kiss. George, however, has other ideas in mind and makes his move. Mary then turns and walks away with a coy smile. She is clearly in control at this point and enjoying every moment.
Watching the scene unfold is a balding, middle-age man sitting on his front porch reading his newspaper and smoking his pipe. At one point, George asks Mary, “Am I talking too much?” to which the neighbor replies, “Yes!” The man continues, “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?” In exasperation, he storms back into his house, muttering, “Aw, youth is wasted on the wrong people!”
George retorts, “I’ll show you some kissing that’ll put hair back on your head!”
Realizing what’s coming next, Mary squeals and runs, only this time George really is accidentally standing on her robe which she sheds as she runs away (out of our line of sight, of course).
The ensuing scene is delightfully tantalizing, but ever discreet. Mary seeks refuge behind a Hydrangea bush as George gazes at the empty bathrobe lying on the ground. Now he is in control, and George makes the most of the moment.
“A very interesting situation we have here,” George remarks, circling like a hawk around the Hyrdrangea bush. “A man doesn’t find himself in a situation like this very often…not in Bedford Falls at least.”
Mary protests, shouting, “Shame on you George Bailey,” and “I’m going to tell your mother!” George reminds her that she is hardly in a position to tell his mother or call the police (who would side with him anyway, according to George).
Finally, George agrees to “make a deal” with Mary, but we never get to hear the details because they are interrupted by George’s Uncle Billy and brother Harry who arrive to tell George that his father has had a stroke. George tosses the robe to Mary who has forgotten her frustration with George and is clearly concerned for him and his father.
The Hydrangea bush plays a very important role in this scene. It allows Mary a modicum of modesty and sanctuary while shielding our eyes from her true glory. Rather than distracting from the sexual tension, her cover actually adds to the titillation since the viewer is left to imagine what delights might be concealed behind the leaves and flowers. Echoes of Eden, perhaps? As I view the modern cinemascape these days, I’m left to conclude we could use a few more Hydrangea bushes to help protect the sacred and beautiful mysteries of a woman’s body.
Some time later, George’s football hero brother Harry returns home from college with his lovely new bride in tow. George is clearly torn. Although he is happy for Harry’s good fortune, he’s grieved to hear that his brother has received a job offer from his new father-in-law which will take him away from Bedford Falls and prevent him from relieving George (who has been looking forward to finally going to college and “seeing the world”) from his duties at the Building and Loan.
The whole town turns out to fete the newlyweds, but George retreats to the front porch for a little pity party of his own. His mother appears and reminds him that Mary has returned from school and perhaps it might be a good idea to call on her. At first, he reluctantly agrees, then turns and stubbornly walks in the opposite direction from Mary’s house.
George does make his way there eventually, however. Mary has clearly been enamored with George since the day as a young girl when she whispered in his deaf ear, “George Bailey, I’m going to love you to the day I die!” She invites him inside, but George is feeling petulent and resentful at the way his life plans have been foiled and spurns her efforts at polite conversation.
Mary’s mother is upset at George’s presence (she has designs of her daughter marrying the successful businessman Sam Wainwright). Yanking her fretting mother’s chain, Mary shouts, “Mother, he’s making mad passionate love to me!” George is clearly doing no such thing, but the viewer can already feel the temperature starting to rise.
Soon Sam calls Mary, and when he learns that George is there, he asks to speak to “ol’ Mossback George.” George and Mary must share the phone since her mother is listening in on the other extension. This brings them into closer physical contact than ever before, a turn of events that has unexpected consequences for both of them.
With the sexual tension now building to a crescendo, George and Mary try in vain to listen to Sam as he offers George the chance to get in on the “ground floor” of his emerging plastics company. Finally, exasperated at George’s reluctance, Sam cries, “Mary, would you please tell George that the chance of a lifetime is standing in front of him?”
Indeed it is, but she has nothing to do with plastics. In anger at this inablility to control his feelings for Mary, he shouts “I want to do what I want to do,” whereupon he does just that–smothering Mary with passionate, if somewhat sloppy, kisses. The next scene shows Mary and George immediately after their wedding, presumably only a short time later.
Hot dog, there it is again! The positive view that physical passion is good and wholesome, but the reminder that it should lead to the marriage altar where it can be controlled and channeled toward it’s ultimate glory.
So, this year if you have teenagers or preadolescent kids in your house, tell them that in order to get their presents they have to sit down and watch It’s a Wonderful Life with you. Will they protest? You betcha. But when push comes to shove, they’ll do anything to get the GI Joe with the Kung Fu Grip.
Then do your parental duty and point out these positive images of healthy, godly sexuality. Will they scoff and make loud, exaggerated gagging noises? Probably. But hey, it’s Christmas–have faith that another miracle will occur. Who knows? Maybe those positive messages will settle somewhere into the subconscious reaches of their little skulls full-of-mush for use at a later time.
Is It’s a Wonderful Life a little corny for the 21st century? Maybe. But if it is, it’s delightfully so, and looking around, I’m beginning to think we could us a little more corn in our lives. Desperate times call for desperate measures.