While Citizen Kane is the most critically acclaimed of American movies, It’s a Wonderful Life may be the most loved (yes, I hear you, Casablanca fans!). On Christmas Day, I saw this ultimate “feel-good” movie in a nonprofit movie theater here in Seattle, where its strengths shine through even more clearly than they do on TV.
The movie starts with shots of Bedford Falls and voiceovers, praying for George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), including one from George himself. We then travel to the heavens, where God and Joseph call in Clarence (Henry Travers), an angel who hasn’t gotten his wings. They tell him that an hour from then, George Bailey will commit suicide. To help prepare him to save George, they show him (and us) important moments in George’s life. And then, soon after Clarence goes down to earth to save George from committing suicide, we are treated to the best use of deux ex machina on film, as George discovers what life would be like if he had never been born.
Since the focus of this movie tends to be on the brilliant, tear-jerking ending (this movie, and Saving Private Ryan, consistently make me cry), I wonder how many people notice the brilliant build-up to that ending, and the life lessons that Frank Capra, the director, wants to impart to us, the audience, through this film. Remember, this movie was released in 1947, right after the ravages of WWII. Stewart, in fact, wasn’t sure if he still had his acting chops intact, but, as one excellent scene between him and Mary (Donna Reed) on the telephone prove, he needn’t have worried. In fact, one cannot imagine this movie without Jimmy Stewart in it as George, and even less so without Lionel Barrymore as the crusty, greedy Mr. Potter, one of the great villains in cinema history. The struggle between Potter and George’s father, and then between Potter and George himself, form the crux of the movie.
So, how are these two characters portrayed? Mr. Potter is all about money and control, which leads to power. He doesn’t care about his tenants, who live in his slum houses, or anyone else in the town. Human dignity, the dignity of owning a home, means nothing to him, since it doesn’t translate into dollars and cents for himself.
George is different. Like his father, he cares about the people he deals with. He doesn’t give them loans so that he can make money; he gives them loans so that they can afford a house for themselves and their families, for he understands that giving a man a house will allow him to ascend the ranks of society, which will benefit both society and the man. While Potter is looking for short-term gain and long-term control, George is looking for long-term gain and short-term control. Mr. Potter invests in money; George Bailey invests in people. And herein lies the difference in their characters. At many points in the movie, George could have taken off and seen the world, or gone to college, or gone on his honeymoon, or taken a lucrative job working for Potter. He doesn’t do any of these things because then Potter would control the community, and all the people that George cares about, including himself, would be under Potter’s oppressive thumb, drained of their human dignity. Since there is an angel in the movie, one could very well believe that Potter is Capra’s version of the devil. The fact that George stands up to Potter, and that the community stands with George, prevents Potter from getting complete control of the town. In fact, many of Potter’s former tenants live in homes they can afford only due to loans made available to them by Bailey’s Savings and Loans.
The problem nowadays is that we have too many Mr. Potters and too few George Baileys–too many willing to squeeze as much money as they can out of others, too many looking to line their pockets with money at the expense of others, rather then allow others to become profitable so that they can profit the whole community. And that highlights another problem. The few George Baileys that we have need communities to support them. I don’t doubt that this happens, on occasion, but when community members become as selfish about their possessions as Potter does his, they tend to abandon their George Baileys. Even the original George Bailey has to quell the crowds when there’s a run on the bank, sacrificing his honeymoon money to do so.
But, the title of this blog is “It’s a Wonderful Movie,” so why is this movie so wonderful? I already mentioned the great use of deux ex machina, but there’s more to it than that. Certainly Mr. Potter is a cunning foe, a real life monster scarier than any to be found in horror movies. On the opposite extreme, George Bailey is such a good person, always sacrificing for others, always on the verge of leaving Bedford Falls, but never succeeding, because he feels that he has a duty to protect the town from Potter’s clutches. If Atticus Finch is the pinnacle of human dignity on film, then George Bailey is a very close second.
To add to the movie’s riches, we have a great supporting cast. The film wouldn’t have worked narly as well with lesser actors and actresses filling the roles of Mary, Clarence, Uncle Billy, and the rest. And, unlike so many movies today, the dialog is funny, witty, and at times, profound (such as when Clarence says to George, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”). Oh, and did I mention the ending? As has happened on so many other occasions where I have had the privilege to watch this film, I cried multiple times, none bigger than when, at the end of the movie [WARNING: SPOILER TO FOLLOW], when all of the townspeople whom George has helped come out to help him, his brother Harry raises a glass and says, “A toast. To my big brother George. The richest man in town” (I am tearing up even as I write this). Yes, Harry might be talking about the money that George has just received. But that’s not why I cry. I cry because what Harry says is not just true at the end of the film. It has been true for the entire movie. Mr. Potter may have more money, but George Bailey has always been the richest man in Bedford Falls.