No longer a cultural reference to selflessness, does George Bailey still have something to teach us?

Does anyone know if It’s a Wonderful Life is still watched at Christmas? 

The movie was already old when we discovered it in the 1970s. We were young kids at home from school on Christmas break. We turned on cable TV, and there it was, playing nonstop. We only watched It’s a Wonderful Life because it was supposed to be about Christmas. There were many somber moments. The black-and-white movie was full of serious adults. Yes, there was a funny old angel. If you paid close attention, there was a supernatural plot. All told, It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t much fun for a young kid.

Iris, Julian, and Eugene

The film’s director would have agreed. “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it,” the legendary Frank Capra said in his later years. “I just liked the idea.”

As 9-year-olds, we kept trying to find some fun. We wanted a show about Santa or Rudolph. Instead, we suffered through a 30-year-old movie about a miserable family man. 

Through repeated bored viewings we picked up on the film’s message. Somewhere along the way, through years of shutting off the movie to find it playing again, we got the point of It’s a Wonderful Life. Maybe the light came on when we went through a classic film phase in our 20s. Now in our 50s, we love the movie. Perhaps, now, it’s because we see ourselves in the film’s message.

Fans of It’s a Wonderful Life know there’s something magical about it. Perhaps magic explains the way it bombed at the box office in 1946 and found new life on television in 1974. 

The story goes that someone forgot to renew the copyright on the movie. It expired. When television stations realized Hollywood’s clerical error, they began to show the film on TV because, suddenly, copyright law said it was in the public domain. It was free, free, free! For the next 20 years, It’s a Wonderful Life would become a holiday air filler for new cable channels that broadcast 24 hours a day. Kids in my generation grew up watching whatever TNT and TBS would show us. An old Hollywood movie like It’s a Wonderful Life gave them a way to fill up airtime.

Today, of course, we stream whatever we want on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Apple TV+. We’re not forced to watch anything. It’s likely you don’t run into It’s a Wonderful Life like we did.

What of the loophole that allowed the film to be broadcast for free? It was closed dubiously. According to copyright law, no work that reaches the public domain is eligible for a future copyright claim. And yet, in 1993, the original Hollywood studio laid a new claim to It’s a Wonderful Life. Barring an expensive legal challenge, the movie can’t be holiday wallpaper anymore. 

We were genuinely annoyed as kids to see nothing else on for weeks during our precious holidays. Now, we remember the oddity of catching different parts of the film whenever we turned on the TV. It could be the scene of George about to jump from the snowy bridge. Or, it could be when George sits at the bedside of his daughter Zuzu and accepts her flower petals. (Zuzu had instructed her daddy to glue the petals back onto her flower.)

The best part of the film was the end (because maybe Rudolph would be on next). George is running through the main street of Bedford Falls. It’s dark and snowy, and George has no overcoat. He’s overjoyed, running along and warmly greeting the town that’s been crushing him. “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!” He’s thankful for being given his life back. He’s been shown life’s worth, his worth. He can’t wait to see his family again.

Fans will tell you It’s a Wonderful Life is an uplifting movie. Different from a feel-good movie, an uplifting movie rises up from a miserable place. Audiences in the 1940s would relate to a feeling of misery. It’s a Wonderful Life was made at the tail end of World War II. A war-weary population looked for a reprieve. It included Jimmy Stewart who had to be convinced to take the part of George Bailey, a man on the edge. Stewart had seen combat as a pilot. Having done no commercial films during his Army service, he wanted to take on a lighthearted role or retire from acting altogether.

Instead, it was the right time for him to play George Bailey. The role would lead to an Academy Award nomination for best actor, Stewart’s third. Critics would notice a new gravitas in his acting after his military service. The film critic Andrew Sarris saw “a force and fury” in Stewart’s small-town hero Bailey. A critic in the 1940s remarked how Stewart had “grown in spiritual stature as well as in talent during the years he was in the war.”

George Bailey repeatedly faces stark choices. He can make the right choice that blesses everyone around him or the selfish choice that benefits himself. Then, as today, George Bailey lives in the shadow of an American dream that offers any number of escapes.

While still young and free, George is offered “the chance of a lifetime” by (hee-haw) Sam Wainright. The girl on Sam’s arm is a looker. She’s dressed to the nines. George and Mary talk to Sam cheek to cheek from the same phone. As Sam speaks and Mary waits, George feels his path being laid out for him, either a predictable life of business or domesticity.

George Bailey responds with controlled rage at both of these opportunities. As Sarris notes, we see the force and fury of Stewart’s acting as he tries to stave off an inevitable compromise.

Now you listen to me. I don’t want any plastics! I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married – ever – to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do. And you’re… and you’re…

George Bailey

Trying to talk himself out of it, George yields to his love for Mary, a good woman who believes in their future. “Kind that will help you find the answers,” as his mother hinted.

Frank Capra was possibly the only Hollywood director to convince Jimmy Stewart to play Bailey. Capra had previously directed Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It weaved a simple story and a fierce ambition to make a difference. It brought the magic. It’s a Wonderful Life would follow the same direction. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington railed against the institutional corruption in Washington, D.C. politics. It also mourned the loss of ideals and innocence in American life. Capra and Stewart’s movie appeared sentimental only to cynics. It was tougher underneath than it appeared to be. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington challenged Depression-era Americans to remember the values upon which their country was founded. If those high ideals appeared sentimental, it was because we had hardened as a people.

In pursuing It’s a Wonderful Life as their first postwar project, Capra and Stewart would see their greatest success. It would be the final classic film by Capra. For Jimmy Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life would define his long career in Hollywood. Legendary actors often resented being identified with a single role. Not Stewart. He called It’s a Wonderful Life his best film.

It would take decades for the film to catch on. Why? Was the subject matter too close to home for a 1940s audience reeling from a world war? It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie about a man who finds an antidote to his own misery. Throughout the film, what’s memorable isn’t its cheerfulness but its pathos. “Playing the happy” was a standard Hollywood staple. Showing a credible family man and a pillar of the community questioning the reason for his existence? It was a dark choice. The topic was suicide.

There are plenty of charming Hollywood moments in the movie. We remember the dance in the packed gymnasium where George Bailey’s rival opens up the retractable floor and dumps the crowd into the pool underneath. Afterward, George and Mary walk home in borrowed clothes. They sing “Buffalo Gals” (“…and dance by the light of the moon.”) When Mary tries to change in a bush she drops her robe. George picks it up and teases Mary about giving it back. 

It’s a genuine moment of romance (“Kiss her already, why don’t you,” a cranky neighbor calls out to George). The moment is cut short as George is called away. His father has died. 

Lazy critics have claimed since its release that It’s a Wonderful Life is a sentimental movie. They’re the hardened hearts Capra and Stewart saw in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Resiliency and faith in selfless living are far from sentimental. Only the strong of character accept this purpose.

The movie’s screenplay conveys a lifetime of sacrificial choices, those that define us for good or ill. After his father dies, George declines to follow his heart’s passion for traveling the world. Instead, he takes over the family business. George feels obligated to honor his father’s legacy at the Building and Loan, his father’s gift to the town. George knows their loan service is a lifeline. Only the Building and Loan keeps hardworking people from falling into the clutches of the ruthless businessman Potter. People would be forced to live in his slums otherwise.

Bidding farewell to youthful dreams, George Bailey stays in Bedford Falls and makes an uneasy peace with sacrifice. He encourages his brother to leave for college in his place. George watches him become a war hero. Ironically, George is given a 4F from the Army over a loss of hearing in one ear, suffered while saving his brother’s life when they were both kids. George makes do with the life set before him. He thinks he knows the limits of his sacrifice. He believes he knows where the line is.

The sacrifices grow more personal. George is again prevented from leaving Bedford Falls, even for a short time. He and Mary give up their honeymoon to prevent a sudden run on the Building and Loan. To keep it from going out of business, they use the money saved for their honeymoon to keep the Building and Loan afloat.

For his selfless attitude, George enjoys a loving family life. George and Mary have four children. They settle in a large house, a fixer-upper that Mary turns into a lovely home while George toils at the Building and Loan. There’s a sense of normalcy. Through a subdivision project that George establishes called Bailey Park, he gives working-class families a way to buy their own homes. Mary is supportive of George’s calling and makes do with his meager paycheck. While George is uncertain about the modest life they’ve made, Mary is sure that a family founded on love is worth it.

So might George Bailey have remained for the rest of his days, a reluctant hero who silently regrets making all the right decisions. Only, the next sacrifice George faces will lead to disgrace. His bumbling, forgetful Uncle Billy misplaces a deposit of money at the bank. It lands, quite literally, in the lap of the ruthless Potter who keeps it in order to see George ruined.

When George learns of the routine bank deposit gone missing, he’s finally beside himself. All that he’s sacrificed for the town has led to nothing for himself. George has the choice of letting his hapless Uncle Billy take the fall for losing the money, or George can face embezzlement charges himself. As George scolds Uncle Billy, it means “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.”

A lifetime of doing the right thing has led to abject failure. It’s Christmas Eve. George can’t move forward. He resolves to end his life by jumping from a bridge. He wishes he were never born.

Everyone knows what happens next. Clarence the angel, second class, comes to George’s rescue. Clarence jumps into the river before George can do it himself. Now George must fish this old man out. As they warm themselves in the bridge operator’s shed, George sees that Clarence is about as shabby as his Uncle Billy. “Well, you look about the kind of angel I’d get,” George quips.

The movie presents its twist. “You’ve been given a great gift, George: a chance to see what the world would be like without you.” George will view a world unimpacted by his choices.

Thanks to an act of heavenly power, George no longer exists. His jaw is no longer sore from the punch the schoolteacher’s husband gave him. His car is no longer where he crashed it. His daughter Zuzu’s petals aren’t in his pocket. George doesn’t believe Clarence’s explanation. He thinks he’s suffering from bad liquor. He returns to Martini’s bar, but it’s called Nick’s Place.

It was particularly confusing for a 9-year-old viewer when It’s a Wonderful Life took a gothic-horror turn. George no longer exists. Everywhere he goes is a scary version of idyllic Bedford Falls. His younger brother is dead because George didn’t save him when they were kids. George’s mother never got over the grief of losing her son. She’s the rough matron of a boardinghouse. Violet, the town’s ne’er-do-well before, is now a fallen woman. George wasn’t there to help her leave town and start anew.

Without the Building and Loan offering an economical alternative for working-class townspeople, ruthless Potter runs Bedford Falls, now called Pottersville. It’s a place of low living, full of drinking and gambling, which undoubtedly enriches Potter.

What of George’s wife Mary?

Mary is a spinster librarian. When George brazenly confronts her and asks if she remembers him, Mary looks at him in terror. The loving mother of his four children runs away from him screaming.

George begins to lose his disbelief in his predicament. He sees the living hell that appears when a good man won’t trust in his sacrifices. George realizes that life is a big thing, much bigger than him and that his place in life, more sweet than bitter, was actually wonderful. 

More than rationally thinking these things, George feels their effects in his gut. He begins to pray earnestly for life to be the way it was. “I want to live again. I want to live again.”

When George cheerily greets Bedford Falls back in his old life, all is not well. He’s returning to the problem of the missing money. He faces embezzlement charges, financial ruin, and jail.

For years, George has been the most capable citizen in Bedford Falls. He had the talent to fulfill his dreams as an architect, a captain of industry. The town has leaned on him, possibly unfairly. Now, George is greeted by the town’s outpouring of goodwill. The townspeople rally around George with no questions asked. It was their money he lost. Now, the money this working-class town gives in return will more than cover Uncle Billy’s mistake. George’s much-alive war-hero brother arrives to give a toast. “To my big brother George: The richest man in town.”

Appearing to be a humble story about one small-town man, It’s a Wonderful Life affirms the extraordinary nature of our lives. The movie employs a supernatural what-if storyline, a la Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to heighten our appreciation for the everyday miracles of marriage, family, and community.

It’s a moral we are shown continually by unseen Clarences in our midst. Our highest calling isn’t a personal achievement. It’s family. Our greatest joy comes from each other. Do people believe it today? Like George Bailey, we’re given an important choice to make.

This post first appeared at I Can Count to Four.

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