Dir. Frank Capra. Starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
It’s a Wonderful Life presents an interesting viewing paradox to me. The movie was always going to get its due as a classic after it famously lost to The Best Years of Our Lives among moviegoers in December 1946. (The movie may not have been like, super popular, but the mainstream critical consensus was that It’s a Wonderful Life was pretty good. The movie was nominated for Best Picture, Capra was tabbed for Best Director, and Stewart got a nod for Best Actor. Losing all three to The Best Years of Our Lives has much more to do, I think, with the zeitgeist.) Its resurrection was hastened by the fact that the copyright lapsed and it became a cheap staple of Christmastime TV before becoming the warmest slice of apple pie in America’s cinematic tummy. But to pigeonhole It’s a Wonderful Life as a Christmas movie, as a movie to save for the holidays, is to lose the first half of the movie, a way of thinking about the movie which diminishes it enormously. So much of the film is an ode to the harshest kind of disappointment: sacrifice. George Bailey does the right thing over and over again at the cost of his own happiness, a fact which is every bit as moving as the dollars that rain down on his table when he needs to make up an $8,000 shortfall. What annoys me about this movie is how well it works. I’m immune to Capra and Stewart together in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for example, and there’s something even cheesier about the often uncaring, typically ineffectual, baldly plain industrial town of Bedford Falls rallying around its secret hero in the wee hours of Christmas morning. I don’t think that going overboard makes this movie more effective—it’s not so ugly that it’s cute—but the movie has worked so hard to make George a person, where Jeff Smith was always as statuesque as Lincoln in his Memorial.
I don’t think Bedford Falls is a very real town—it’s sort of like living in Gopher Prairie if you wore anti-irony glasses eighteen hours a day—but the individuals there are real enough to support the claim that George is a real person living among them. We can tell when he and Mary accidentally start the trend of jumping into the pool underneath the dance floor. In his younger days, George merely falls into the pool as opposed to jumping off a bridge; the fact that so many of the Bedford Falls kids follow him in indicates that this story might just as easily have followed any of them. As far as it goes with named characters, it must start with Ernie and Bert, the taxi driver and the beat cop, the man who tries to take George out of Bedford Falls and the man who brings him back home. They may not have much to do in the story, but one can imagine either man going home to a family and having frustrations and accomplishments to fall back on. The death of Gower’s son and his overwhelming grief feel real, even if the scene that ensues is contrived. George’s totally successful and slightly flaky younger brother, Harry, is a portrait of younger brothers all over the world.
It’s also worth giving some credit to It’s a Wonderful Life for finding a person in Mary; The Best Years of Our Lives, as I’ve argued in the past, assumes that women will function as parachutes for the menfolk landing from their wartime firmament. Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright soften blows and, as deemed necessary, take them in order to help the men adjust. It’s a Wonderful Life sees in Mary someone with the power to do things, a proactive force rather than a reactive one. Mary wants George from a young age and figures out how to get him (“He’s making violent love to me, Mother!”), where Peggy is dissuaded from breaking up Fred’s marriage by her parents. Mary saves the Building and Loan from a ruinous run by bringing in the money for her honeymoon. Mary rouses Bedford Falls in support of George when she learns that he’s $8,000 in the hole. What would Wilma or Milly have done short of suffer quietly while their husbands suffered noisily? Mary Bailey in this story lives for her husband, which is par for the course in the ’40s, but at least there’s an implication that she lives outside her husband, too. (One takes issue with the characterization of her as an old maid librarian in the future where George has never existed; I don’t know how I’m supposed to believe that Donna Reed in the ’20s doesn’t find a husband or how I’m supposed to believe that in a world absent George no one else would ever appeal to her, but whatever.)
You can’t have It’s a Wonderful Life without the scene where George all but sells his soul to Potter. To me, this is the key scene which shows that George is not a symbol but an honest-to-goodness man. When the old man offers George a three-year contract at $20,000 a year to manage his affairs, a sum almost ten times better than what he makes at the Building and Loan, George drops the fine cigar Potter’s given him right in his lap. Like Daisy Buchanan, Potter’s voice sounds like money, and Barrymore leans directly into the Mephistophelean role he knows he’s playing. Just think, George, he says. You can live in the best house in town instead of the wreck that people used to throw rocks at for kicks. Your wife’s wardrobe will be the envy of the town. (That little prediction always amazes me with its effectiveness; why shouldn’t George, who has spent the last ninety minutes making himself crazy for other people, want to give his supportive wife something she can’t have now?) He must remember how George dreamed of traveling the world in his youth; my affairs, he says, will take you to New York City and sometimes even to Europe. Even the responsibility must appeal to our hero, who believed as a young man that he would build skyscrapers a hundred stories high and bridges a mile long. George turns him down (“No, doggone it!” he cries, and the rest of us murmur that there couldn’t be another Jimmy Stewart even if they cloned the ol’ string bean), as he must, but you can see the wanting on his face and hear it in his voice. It’s no less temptation than the Messiah had to face when Satan found him in the desert. The Son of God can visualize, at the edge of his imagination, the kingdoms of the earth in thrall; George Bailey, small-town guy living on subsistence, can as easily picture making that kind of money as he can picture a wingless angel and a present without himself ever existing. That he turns it down means that he’s different from us regular folks, but maybe it’s just that he’s better than us. It’s also possible that he’s spent so much of his life fighting Henry Potter that giving in, even at $20,000 a year, isn’t a serious choice. The Building and Loan has always been a sunk cost, never likely to pay George a good salary. In that moment, George decides that the rest of his life is going to be a sunk cost, too. There’s nothing he can do to change the opportunities he refused to indulge in, and there’s no point in struggling against it.
This is the last deep breath before the plunge. The movie’s climax—heck, the movie’s plot—relies on Uncle Billy losing $8,000 of money from the Building and Loan. George even goes to Potter in his desperation for a loan; it’s in that scene that Potter informs George that he’s “worth more dead than alive.” There have been other moments that could have sent George away from Uncle Billy’s carelessness. He could have let the Building and Loan fall to Potter after the elder Bailey dies; he could have appealed to Harry’s sense of fairness to take the Building and Loan on rather than go directly to his new father-in-law; he could have gotten into plastics with Sam Wainwright. But he doesn’t do any of those things, and so the fulcrum of his life is in the moment he turns down a deal with the devil which could have solved that problem. The movie is most famous for its consideration of an alternate future, yet the one it chooses to indulge in is merely the most dramatic of the bunch.
As much as the series of other possibilities which were originally available to George Bailey, the movie gains significant power from its depiction of suicide. George Bailey is not a praying man, as he tells God while he mutters a hasty orison at the bar, but he is not the type to try to kill himself. He is mostly good-humored, although the movie doesn’t frequently place him in situations where he gets to be gay. He has a wife and four children. He has never run away from a problem before. But in the late hours of Christmas Eve, George Bailey is unable to fix his problems. There is nowhere to run but the river. It seems to me to be a pretty fair representation of what it’s like to attempt suicide at all—he sees no amenable solution short of death. He has been trying to escape Bedford Falls for so long, and now he has a chance to get out for good to a place that’s much more interesting than Baghdad or Samarkand; his suicide is rooted in escapism as so many suicides are. It’s a part of him that’s just as human as his offer to pull down the moon for Mary or his desire to carry on his father’s work.