Earlier this week Star Tribune theater critic Chris Hewitt offered a charming and informative salute to the 75th anniversary of the classic Christmas movie favorite "It's A Wonderful Life" ("It's a 'wonderful' anniversary," Dec. 20).

Don't hold it against Hewitt's fine piece that it has provoked me to excavate some history of my own. I'm increasingly easy to provoke in this way.

More than 30 years ago, I published an essay about director Frank Capra's ubiquitous holiday classic for another (long defunct) publication. Like the film, my analysis is now antique — but it hasn't changed much more than the movie itself has. I offer here a slightly updated version as yet another quaint tradition of the season.

"It's A Wonderful Life" is quite a serious film, at least as so-called "feel-good" movies go. It is in fact one of Hollywood's genuine philosophical achievements. As such, it is one of the most widely disseminated philosophical works ever produced, almost rivaling the story on which it is rather shamelessly patterned: Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

Dickens' masterpiece is one of those artistic treasures that has become such a firm fixture in our culture's psychology it seems as if its plot and characters must always have existed. It is hard to fathom that long ago a prolific storyteller simply made the whole thing up.

Anyway, George Bailey, the hero of "It's A Wonderful Life," is the Ebenezer Scrooge of the modern age. It's a not uncommon mistake nowadays to suppose the movie's wicked banker, Mr. Potter (so brilliantly played by Lionel Barrymore), is the "Scrooge-like" character in the tale.

But while neither Capra nor Dickens was an uncritical admirer of capitalism, both had deeper themes than banker bashing in mind.

"A Christmas Carol" was a protest against avarice and miserliness, vices that especially plague impoverished societies. "It's A Wonderful Life" is a protest against a vice that especially plagues fortunate societies. That vice is self-pity.

George Bailey's story begins as he is about to commit suicide, partly because of an imminent crisis but mainly because he feels he has led a worthless life, running a threadbare family business in the "crummy little town" of Bedford Falls. But in his hour of need, on Christmas Eve, George, like Scrooge, is visited by a spirit.

A bumbling guardian angel (second class) shows George that the world would be a sadder place without him and that he would sorely miss what has actually been "a wonderful life."

Yet this is no conventional happy-ever-after fantasy. Consoling as it is to see George's jovial neighbors parade into his living room to rescue him from bankruptcy, the fact remains that he never will achieve his heart's desire — to travel the world and become a great builder. He will go on running his ever-struggling finance company building small homes in a small community filled with small ambitions.

And it's just here where one detects the bittersweet aftertaste that is the true signature flavor of the Christmas season. It's a season made, it seems, for despairing lost souls in need of redemption. Besides George and Scrooge, think of the Grinch, Charlie Brown and his scrawny tree, even "A Christmas Story's" Ralphie and his forlorn air rifle dreams.

All these stray lambs are found. But the season's mood remains strangely shadowed, and that has a lesson to teach, especially in our time. We feel a little sorry for George Bailey when he finally resigns himself to an ordinary life in a way we don't feel sorry for Scrooge when he becomes a lunatic spendthrift.

Like Scrooge, George learns something from his Christmas Eve visitation that is particularly hard and important to learn in our particular era, our simultaneously challenging and coddled times. He learns that the great obstacle to happiness in life is not disappointment, but ingratitude. He learns that he has been bearing a heavy chain forged of self-pity and resentment, every bit as heavy as the chain Scrooge forged out of cruelty and neglect.

George's true moment of freedom comes before the celebratory ending, when he bursts into the house, spots the sheriff waiting for him, and cries, "I'm going to jail, isn't that wonderful!"

This is a liberated man.

As Hewitt noted, people are often surprised nowadays to learn that when it first appeared in 1946, "It's A Wonderful Life" was not wildly popular. To audiences who had just lived through a world war, and before that a Depression, George Bailey's suffering just didn't make sense. It's as American life has become more comfortable for most that we've found it easier to identify with this morose hero.

Consider George Bailey's life: He grows up in a happy, loving family; inherits a family business that endures for decades; marries the loveliest woman in town (or damn near any town), who bears him four angelic children and appears to worship the dithering boob. He is loved by everyone he knows (not counting Mr. Potter).

Get it? It's a wonderful life, and yet George has been feeling terribly sorry for himself, sort of like we all do. So maybe we're all just as silly as he is. Roll the credits.

It's not a new idea. "Life is suffering," said Buddha. "All is vanity," wrote Solomon. "Creation groans together in pain," said St. Paul. These were clever fellows, and they would have understood Capra's movie in a flash.

George Bailey's suffering is at once both foolish and real. (Scrooge's worries are real, too — poverty truly was a horrifying hazard in 1840s London.) Suffering is the one thing all human beings have in common, however fortunate their lives. We all have unfulfilled dreams for the simple reason that dreams come true are dreams no longer, and new unfulfilled dreams take their place.

Had George Bailey shaken the dust of Bedford Falls off his feet and become an international playboy, he would have spent his life wishing he'd married the girl next door.

Except that George, like Scrooge, gets lucky, and learns the message, not only of Christmas, but of Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Confucianism and every other worthy philosophy — the message that if you wait for possessions or accomplishments or experiences to make you happy, you will never, ever get there. The kingdom is within you, as the birthday boy put it.

Cheer up. Merry Christmas.