It’s A Wonderful Life, Indeed

No man is a failure who has friends.

I have an admission to make: It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie of all time. It’s a running joke in my family that around the holidays I’ll wear out the DVD, and they love to speculate on how many times I’ll watch it, or force others to watch it, this time around. I have books about the film, and even a Christmas ornament with the famous last scene on it to grace my tree. I can speak it line for line. My love for the movie has no bounds.

It’s a Wonderful Life has been my favorite film since I was a very small child. It might seem like kind of an odd choice for a little girl ““ what with all the other Christmas movies abounding full of Santa Claus, colorful Grinches, reindeer, Charlie Browns and Snoopys, animated toys, and all the rest. When I was little, PBS used to show it every afternoon on Thanksgiving, and our family just got into the habit of watching it after we were done eating. My cousins never paid much attention, but the first time I really sat down to watch it, I was riveted. For a black and white film all about a man who is down on his luck, the film really resonated with me, even as a child. I fell in love with George Bailey, who is an idealist, full of hopes and dreams, who yearns for a life full of adventure and promise, but who struggles with the grim reality of every day life and adult responsibilities.

Every time I watch it, the film has new meaning for me. Sometimes I latch onto the love story aspect ““ the sweet story of George and Mary; other times, I pay more attention to the dynamic between George and his family ““ his respected, beloved father, his fretting, well-meaning mother, his dynamic, handsome younger brother Harry, and the scatterbrained but loveable Uncle Billy. There are so many things to discover in the film. George Bailey’s life sees both tragedy and triumph in turn. The scene where George stops the grieving Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a young child makes me cry every time. As does the scene when, coming home from the dance with Mary, George stops to throw rocks into the window of the old house, to make a wish. Mary throws a rock and silently wishes for George to stay in Bedford Falls. It is bittersweet, because all George wants is to see the world, and to get out of Bedford Falls… but Mary wishes for him to stay.

Never has the movie spoken to me more than this year. What a year it has been. Looking back on it, I’m surprised that so many of us have come out of it unscathed. With the unemployment numbers soaring, more and more people being forced out of their homes, forced to accept government aid, forced to drop out of school or go without health insurance, and big business only getting richer, it’s easy to become discouraged. Just like George Bailey was. In this scene, when Mr. Potter is trying to buy out the Building and Loan that George’s father had given his life to, George becomes incensed. As I watched the scene I couldn’t help but see Mr. Potter as a metaphor for the real-life fat cats our society are dealing with, and see parallels in my own feelings. This scene could be a rally cry for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Listen to how Mr. Potter describes those who founded the Building and Loan. “Lazy, starry-eyed dreamers,” he calls them. Sound familiar?

Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!

George Bailey had it right. And, in the end, he followed in his father’s footsteps and continued on with the Building and Loan, providing members of the community of Bedford Falls the opportunity to live in their own homes and be working, contributing members to the town. He gave up his own dreams and hopes of seeing the world in order to take care of his family and friends back home. He was a truly selfless individual.

Of course, as we all know, things went awry and George ended up losing everything. Through a mistake of Uncle Billy’s, a huge sum of money is misplaced and word gets out that the bank is in trouble. Everyone rushes to the Building and Loan to take out their funds. George can’t account for the missing money and is facing financial ruin. The stress begins to get to him and he tries to run away from it all. After getting in a physical altercation with someone at a bar, and crashing his car in a drunken accident, he runs to the bridge, staring into the icy water, and wishes for the courage to kill himself.

It’s at this part of the movie that the angel Clarence appears, who has been assigned the task of showing George just how much his life means; what the world would be like if he had never been born. He shows George just how much of a part he had played in helping those in his community, and how much of an asset he truly was in the lives of those he loved. For instance, if he’d never been born, his brother Harry would have died in a sledding accident as a child. He never would have gone on to become a war hero and saved the lives of his entire battalion. Mary would have never gotten married. Many of the people living in nice, cozy houses in Bailey Park would all be living in Mr. Potter’s slums. And so on.

Eventually George begins to realize that there is more value to his life than paper money, and realizes how much value his life still has. Desperate to start again, he begs Clarence to restore him to his life. He runs home to his family.

Surprisingly, Mary and his family have rallied the town, fundraising to save the Building and Loan. Much to George’s surprise, several old friends have come to his immediate aid, sending him unspecified advances, and the rest of the town all gather round, throwing change into the basket to help bail him out. It doesn’t look like George Bailey is going to be a ruined man today.

The last scene of the film always kills me.

George Bailey was an idealist, a dreamer, but life eventually hardened him, and he forgot about the real value of life. Not paper money, but the value of friends and family. It never occurred to him that those he’d given so generously to might rally around him to help him in his time of need. He underestimated his own worth. In the end, that was the lesson he needed to learn ““ that no man is a failure who has friends.

It is a lesson that I think we should all remember, in these uncertain times.

By Teri Drake-Floyd

An almost 30-something synestheste, foodie, genealogist and all around proud geek.

4 replies on “It’s A Wonderful Life, Indeed”

This movie gets me weepy every time I see it too. That last scene absolutely kills me, no matter how many times I see it.

However, I always get a hearty chuckle out of Mary’s part of the alternate universe. All these other people George affected were either dead, drunk, or living in a hovel, lives in ruin. And Mary? Well, Mary got it worst of all. “She’s a SPINSTER!” Gasp! Not only that, a LIBRARIAN spinster! Heavens.

As if the worst thing that could ever happen to someone is not getting married and becoming a librarian. And as if sweet, beautiful Donna Reed would have stayed single were it not for good old George Bailey. That part of the film always felt more like a bit of a male fantasy rather than heartwarming take of selfless dreamer.

Yeah, that part is a bit silly. I’m inclined to agree with you there. Whenever I see that part I try to remind myself that hey, this was 1946…being a spinster was bad and all. But yes, it is a bit far fetched. I mean, she was a dish, and Sam Wainright was totally after her before George…so I would have loved it if she’d have ended up with him, some unhappy trophy wife or something. That would have been more believable than the ‘spinster’ angle. But I still love the movie  unabashedly anyway.

He gave up his own dreams and hopes of seeing the world in order to take care of his family and friends back home. He was a truly selfless individual.

I find it interesting to track how I react to this part of the story as I get older. As I get older and dreams that I have seem to move further and further away, is what replaces them enough? I think this is one of the reasons its remained such a popular film — it works on a bunch of different levels, about these very real human situations that so many people can identify with.

It’s true. I derive something different from it every time I watch it. The storyline between George and Mary is kind of devastating, looking at it now from an adult perspective. I mean, it’s obvious that he likes her, and later loves her, but it’s also clear that he’s pressured from so many different fronts to stay in Bedford Falls and become this family man and manage the Building and Loan. And that’s not what he wants. Not at all. Even after he’s fully involved in that life, with four children, running the whole place, he still wants out. It’s very sad.

Then towards the end he kind of makes peace with what his life is, and realizes that he is happy and content with who he is and what he has…because he’s valued, respected, and admired in his community. And he realizes that he has made positive changes for others to be happy, which is worth more to him than personal gain. Even so, it’s still bittersweet that good old George Bailey never got the actual life he wanted.


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