Continuing the Christmas movie theme this week, today I want to look at another Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve watched it–15? 20? It’s a rare Christmas that I don’t rewatch it, at least since I was maybe eight, so it has to be a high number of times! It’s one of those wonderful movies that I can keep on watching, and keep seeing new things.
I’d like to just assume everyone’s seen it, but I did that in a class once, when I wanted to quote a line, and was shocked that half the people present had never watched the movie. So, a plot summary: George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) lives in the tiny town of Bedford Falls, and has always dreamed of getting out into the world to do great things. Circumstances, duty and responsibility keep trapping him in town. He marries Mary (Donna Reed), and runs the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, his father’s company which makes loans and builds houses for the working class in town. This job puts him at odds with Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a “warped, frustrated old man” who cares only for his money and his control; as he puts it himself, “Most people hate me, but I don’t like them either, so it comes out even.” Mr. Potter can’t stand it that he can’t control George and the Building and Loan; George hates his job but persists so that “people in town will have at least one place they can go to without crawling to Potter.”
One Christmas Eve, George gets into a terrible mess (his uncle and business partner’s fault) involving missing money, and is finally at the end of his rope. When he contemplates killing himself, God sends Clarence Oddbody, a genial angel trying to earn his wings, who helps George by showing him what the world would be like if he had never been born.
Like Casablanca, I feel like the plot summary barely does it justice. It’s a wonderful, complex, deftly-handled movie. Ultimately, it’s about what is probably a nearly-universal problem, the conflicting pulls between our duty and our dreams, between our relationships and our freedom. I love stories about people who chase their dreams and disregard the consequences. But I also believe it’s our relationships that bring us the greatest happiness. Like Mary, I moved back to my hometown after college, mostly because of my family. Like George, I have big dreams of seeing the world. Unlike George, I like to think I can combine those goals.
I feel so sad for George, especially in the beginning of the movie, when he keeps getting SO close to going out into the world, and every time something thwarts him–with his own sense of responsibility a major cause. This would be a terrible movie if I really believed George was miserable his whole life, and then Clarence swooped in at the end to convince him everything was wonderful. But the movie is handled more carefully than that.
There’s this very nice balance between George’s frustrations and longings, and all the happiness that really is in his life. We see him dreaming of escaping, but we also see him surrounded by warm friends and loving family. His frustrations and his happiness tend to be juxtaposed. (Warning: Spoilers after this point!) The same day he realizes his brother won’t be taking over the Building and Loan, trapping him in town, he also gets together with Mary. He turns down a slimy offer from Potter but feels frustrated with his life, and that night Mary announces she’s having a baby. If George’s friends came to help him only at the end, none of this would work. Instead, there’s a definite feeling that they’re there all along.
Watching this for the 15th or 20th time, I can pay attention to the background things. When I watched it this year, I was really drawn by the pictures on the walls. It’s particularly striking during the bank crisis, when George is on the phone with Potter. The two men are contrasted through their pictures. George is in his office, with a picture of his mother on the desk (in other scenes, we also see he has his father’s picture on the wall). Potter is in his study, with an enormous portrait of himself over the fireplace. Near the end, when George is frustrated and lashing out, he knocks over a model bridge in his living room, which is sitting on a work table. Behind the bridge, though, you can see a line of photos: Mary, George’s mother, Uncle Billy… There’s also a picture of Lincoln. Contrast that to our view of Potter’s office in the next scene, where he seems to have a bust of Napoleon–and another portrait of himself. The model bridge also gives me hope that George hasn’t completely given up on his dreams of building great things.
This is ultimately a beautiful movie about what matters most in life, and it delivers the message without being cloying or overly sentimental. That takes a deft touch too. One example–George makes several impassioned speeches, about pulling together, or about what really counts, or occasionally fighting with Potter. His most beautiful speeches are generally disregarded by his audience. He makes a wonderful, passionate speech during the bank crisis; the crowd stares at him, then says, “Yeah, but we need money!” This not only demonstrates George’s frustrations, it also saves the scenes from being too over the top. If everyone applauded at the end, it would turn into sentimentalist nonsense.
Instead, it all builds up to the final message of the movie, a toast from George’s brother: “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.” The beautiful part is that it’s not a tacked-on message. It’s there throughout the movie, and I think George really does know all along that, as Clarence says, “No man is a failure who has friends.” Much earlier in the movie, George is speaking about his father to Potter, and says, “In my book, he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.” Because he had character, and he cared about people.
George did have a wonderful life all along, and I think he knew it–he just didn’t know that he knew it.
So how does George wind up, after his experience on Christmas Eve? We don’t know, but I like to think maybe he ends up a little like, ironically, Lionel Barrymore’s character in another Frank Capra movie, You Can’t Take It With You. He never gets rich, but he presides over a big happy family, friends with all his neighbors, appreciating the people around him.