This past Wednesday evening, John and I tuned into It’s A Wonderful Life . Although I wrote a piece on this film back in August, seeing it again impels another. Most of the film is composed of Clarence, George Bailey’s guardian angel, being schooled in George’s life.
The film opens with a heavenly conversation among angels deliberatng about who shall be chosen to go to earth to save George Bailey:
Senior Angel: [voice-over] Hello Joseph, trouble?
Joseph – Angel: [voice-over] Looks like we’ll have to send someone down. There are a lot of people asking for help for a man named George Bailey.
Senior Angel: [voice-over] George Bailey? Yes! Tonight’s his crucial night. You’re right. We’ll have to send someone down immediately. Whose turn is it?
Joseph – Angel: [voice-over] That’s why I came to see you, sir. It’s that clock maker’s turn again.
Senior Angel: [chuckles]
Senior Angel: Oh, Clarence. Hasn’t gotten his wings yet, has he?
Joseph – Angel: [voice-over] We passed him up right along. Because, you know sir, he’s got the IQ of a rabbit.
Senior Angel: [voice-over] Yes, but he’s got the faith of a child. Simple. Joseph, send for Clarence.
Clarence: [voice-over] You sent for me, sir?
Senior Angel: [voice-over] Yes, Clarence. A man down on earth needs our help.
Clarence: [voice-over] Splendid. Is he sick?
Senior Angel: [voice-over] No, worse. He’s discouraged. At exactly 10:45 pm Earth time, that man will be thinking seriously about throwing away God’s greatest gift.
Clarence: [voice-over] Oh, dear, dear. His life. Then I’ve only got one hour to dress. What are they wearing now?
John turned to me then and asked, “Why don’t we tire of this movie?”
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 first scene. we enter 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.
From Clarence’s heavenly tutorial, we 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 dark and depressing. Because like so much in life, when we reduce anything to soundbytes, its substance-essence- is lost. Frank Capra directed and partially wrote the screenplay. It’s A Wonderful Life was the famed director’s favorite. Capra explains that in 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 the story 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. “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”
He complains. “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?”
Even threatens: “Where’s that money, you silly stupid old fool? Where’s that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison! That’s what it means! One of us is going to jail; well, it’s not gonna be me!”
He loses control and rages against Mary, his kids and finally despairs, gives into fear, sure that the plaintive prayer uttered from lips that rarely prayed, went unheard.
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.
Similarly, Geroge’s sincere expression 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.”
He has acquired the habit of acting virtuously, it has become second nature.
Reflections on George Bailey make 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?
Capra’s film reveals them all: Pride, greed, imprudence, intemperence, despair, faithlessnness, ingratitude and injustice.
These are flawed people and yet the citizens of George’s Bedford Falls are mostly people of good will. Clarence’s wonderful gift to George is an exqusititely painful descent into the depravity of “Potterstown.” Bedford Falls would never have existed had George not been born.
And yet, there is one character who seems to personify virtue: Mary. Young Mary has a single focus: To marry George Bailey. She radiates chastity, modesty, patience, humility, wholesomeness…and love. We see a helpmate in her, a woman dedicated to her husband and children. We watch as she transforms a broken down shell of rotting boards and planks into a vibrant light-filled home. Mary’s reply to Tommy asking if Daddy is in trouble?
“Yes, Daddy is in a great deal of trouble. Pray very hard for him, children.”
The storm of prayers rise up:
Mr. Emil Gower: [voice-over] I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father.
Giuseppe Martini: [voice-over] Joseph, Jesus and Mary. Help my friend, Mr. Bailey.
Ma Bailey: [voice-over] Help my son, George, tonight.
Bert: [voice-over] He never thinks about himself, God, that’s why he’s in trouble.
Ernie Bishop: [voice-over] George is a good guy. Give him a break, God.
Mary: [voice-over] I love him, dear Lord. Watch over him tonight.
Janie Bailey: [voice-over] Please, God, something’s the matter with Daddy.
Zuzu Bailey: [voice-over] Please bring Daddy back.
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 the casual use of love in everyday language. Divine love seeks the good of the other for the others’ sake.
It’s A Wonderful Life reveals one recipe of precisely how to achieve it.