Until I met my husband, I had neither heard of nor watched Frank Capra’s classic film, It’s A Wonderful Life. From the very first moments of the movie, I was hooked. In fact, each Christmas season, we watch it at least once, sometimes twice, despite being able to practically recite the dialogue along with Jimmy Stewart, Henry Travers (Clarence) and Donna Reed. One would think that after seeing a movie over twenty-five times, it would lose its effect. But it never does.
From the very beginning, I felt dropped into a world of clarity. The black and white of the filming operates metaphorically: the decisions of ordinary people in an “average” American town for good or evil profoundly affect everyone- even the entire world. Despite its total absence of overt religiousity, It’s A Wonderful Life portrays the consequences of virtue and vice, pride and humility…of good and evil. Sometimes subtly, and occasionally, dramatically. Always, my heart swells with the messages offered by this beautifully written and acted film.
We learn about George when the movie opens. In an absolutely delightful heavenly narration, we quickly see that young George Bailey is wildly ambitious. His goals are crystal clear and remain consistently so throughout his childhood and early adult life. George plans to:
Instead, he ends up “wasting his life” working his father’s crummy Savings and Loan business in Bedford Falls. In fact, George’s last conversation with his father contains that exact hurtful phrase about not wanting to waste his life in a dingy crummy savings and loan office.
It’s funny, because as I write this accurate but skeletal outline of the story’s primary plot, it sounds like a movie I’d dislike: dark and depressing. Because like so much in life, when we reduce anything to soundbytes, its substance-essence- is lost.
Before I tell you just why I love this film so much, a bit of background about it, from Frank Capra, the director and partial screenwriter. It’s A Wonderful Life was the famed director’s favorite. Capra explains that it was 1946- he simply could not bear making a war movie. As a Major in the Army, Capra had been tasked with producing movies about why we had to fight. Sick to death of war, Capra came across a short story called The Greatest Gift. This tale of a man contemplating suicide because of the meaningless of the life he had lived touched the film director deeply. He wanted to do a movie about goodness…even in the 40’s, Capra reminisced decades later, Hollywood films sbout goodness were rare.
The screenwriters adapted it but Capra knew the screenplay needed an antagonist: a movie about Goodness requires its opposite. He and the other American soldiers returning home knew evil, they had met it in the battlefields. And so the brilliance of Mr. Potter emerged from Capra’s pen.
There are so many reasons!
But primarily, it’s these:
George is an ordinary American man. Those of us born in small towns in rural America can readily understand the need to get out. Experience and taste the vastly different cultures and peoples on this earth.
But when young George Bailey is faced with a life-threatening crisis or a moral dilemma, he follows his conscience. And acts heroically. We see young George dive into the ice to save his little brother. Then observe the distraught pharmacist he works for and George’s costly decision not to deliver the prescription he knows is poison. We see him stepping back time and again from his dreams of college. Finally, we watch him take the blame for Uncle Billy’s carelessness as he is reduced to begging from Potter.
And yet, George is no saint.
Totally loses control and rages against Mary, his kids and finally he despairs, gives into fear, sure that the plaintive prayer uttered from lips that rarely prayed, went unheard.
And the hurtful comment George made to his father evokes my seventeen-year-old self telling my mother that I could not waste my life as she had, I would become famous. Later in life, I got to apologize for my youthful stupidity. George did not.
Well, you look about the kind of angel I’d get. Sort of a fallen angel, aren’t you? What happened to your wings?
I haven’t won my wings, yet. That’s why I’m called an Angel Second Class. I have to earn them. And you’ll help me will you?
Sure, sure. How?
By letting me help you.
I know one way you can help me. You don’t happen to have 8,000 bucks on you?
No, we don’t use money in Heaven.
Well, it comes in real handy down here, bud!
Capra and Jimmy Stewart challenge each of us with their conception and portrayal of George Bailey. The many deaths to himself required by George are subtle and are underplayed in dialogue and Stewart’s acting. Often we see only an expression. Like the one on George’s face when he sees that little brother Harry has not only married but has a job with enormous potential. Meaning that his dreams of college must die.
And the one on his face when Potter asks, “You?!” Knowing full well that it was Uncle Billy who placed the cash in the folded newspaper and walked away from it.
Potter asks again. “You are the one who misplaced the money?”
“Yes,” George replies. We can see no sense of sacrifice on George’s expression-no subtle “Well, you know how addleheaded Uncle Billy is.” Despite the rage we watch when a desperate George realizes just what is at stake from the carelessness of his uncle. He has acquired the habit of acting virtuously, it has become second nature. And makes me think of theologian Karl Rahner’s idea of the “anonymous Christian.”
Is it a coincidence that the catalyst to Uncle Billy’s forgetfulness is his goad to Potter? The pride at his nephew Harry’s heroism rubbed in Potter’s face?
These are flawed people and yet the citizens of George’s Bedford Falls are mostly people of good will. Aside, of course, from Potter. Clarence’s wonderfull gift to George is an exqusititely painful descent into the depravity Pottertown. Bedford Falls would never have existed had George not been born.
There is one character who seems to exemplify virtue: Mary. Young Mary has a single focus: To marry George Bailey. Long before the cultural incursion of what Carrie Greiss terms, “toxic femiminity,” Mary personifies chastity, modesty, patience, humility, wholesomeness…and love. We see a helpmate in her, a woman dedicated to her husband and children. Quite literally, we watch her transform a broken down shell of rotting boards and planks into a vibrant light-filled home. Not one time do we hear a complaint from her lips.
Is it just coincidence that her name is Mary?
And is it my imagination that Donna Reed’s face always seems suffused with light?
St.Thomas Aquinas wrote that divine love is the standard for all human actions. Divine love is, of course, far different from its use in the vernacular- it is a love that seeks the good of the other for the others’ sake. It’s A Wonderful Life reveals one recipe of precisely how to achieve it.
The true soldier fights not because
he hates what is in front of him
but because he loves what is behind him.
Literature is a luxury
fiction is a necessity.
There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast
that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.
There are two ways to get enough.
One is to continue to accumulate more and more.
The other is to desire less and less.