“It’s a Wonderful Life” remains as relevant as ever even as it comes up on 73 years. Every year when Christmas is well underway, I rewatch it and feel something new, which isn’t something I can say about any other movie. Part of it is me getting older, but I would say most of it’s from watching my own expectations of life take a knee.
I’m going to be referencing specifics in this movie, so if you haven’t seen it yet (even though it was released in 1946 and you have no excuse), go watch it now and cry a bit before reading on.
George Bailey is a rather likeable character who shines with so much decency, he must have lassoed it out of the sky and eaten it raw. We watch him grow up, fall in love, and build a humble, ordinary life until a few sudden, fatal mistakes put everything in jeopardy. The movie starts on Christmas Eve night with George standing on a snowy bridge while he musters up the courage to jump. Clarence Odbody, George’s wingless guardian angel, intervenes by throwing himself over the bridge knowing that even at his lowest, George would put others ahead of himself. In one of many legendary moments from this movie, Clarence gives George the opportunity to visit an alternate reality in which he never existed. He tells George that he’s “been given a great gift” to see the world without him in it. As George stumbles around Pottersville meeting the worst versions of friends he’d come to take for granted during life, it’s easy for us in the audience to understand why they’ve become bitter. George wasn’t there to save his brother, stop the doctor from poisoning a patient, keep the Building and Loan from closing and Potter taking over Bedford Falls. Yet George is baffled with every interaction, every snide remark, sneer, foreclosed business, tavern, and dance house. The desolation left by his absence is impossible for him to fathom until he’s staring it in the face.
George’s importance in Bedford Falls is obvious to us, but we’re also experiencing his life from a series of hand-picked snapshots. Our own lives are full of filler episodes and far too many commercial breaks, and without a Clarence Oddbody to show us the gaping hole our absence leaves behind, it’s difficult to internalize the importance of our boring existences.
If we were to experience the same flip, I doubt we’d have a much better reaction than George. The ways we touch other lives are infinite and impossible to understand completely without isolating others from our influence.
When George was young, he had planned on designing large, exotic buildings. Instead, he saved a town. His greatest contribution isn’t grandiose or exorbitant artitecture, but the humble Bailey Park full of simple homes for working class families. We cannot disqualify George Bailey’s great contribution in life because it appears mundane and took years to accomplish. While Potter, and even George until the end, didn’t fully understand the impact of Bailey Park, every one of the families living in their own homes did. After his surreal journey, George charges through town shouting, “Merry Christmas,” and is met with people who once again know his name and smile at his voice; a reality only made possible by his gradual, consistent service. Besides literally saving lives, George saved the town and the spirit of the American Dream for his working-class neighbors.
His first destination is the home he never wanted. He breezes past the bank examiner, brushes off the officers with a warrant in hand, and runs to his children. That action is beautiful in its simplicity, and we can ignore its implications because it seems so obvious. Of course he runs to his children. Why wouldn’t he? Well, it’s important to recognize what actually drove George over the edge to understand why this scene matters.
An argument could be made that the shattering of his dignity sent him to rock bottom. George has high standards, which is fine, even great at times, but he’s also prideful. He consistently tells Potter to shove it throughout the movie, so begging Mister Monopoly for help was not only humiliating but a great demonstration of how desperate George had become. To be threatened with imprisonment in his time of need was an entirely new brand of bleakness, so his hopelessness makes sense. Yet, I would also add that George had been made a fool of throughout the movie by pretty girls, classmates, and even his mother-in-law. George even takes this fall for his uncle’s blunder in misplacing the bank deposit. Pride alone isn’t what drives George.
Instead, George is driven by his expectations. In the beginning, he has high hopes of traveling the world and becoming an architect, but his father’s passing delays those dreams. He sends his brother to college expecting to travel once he returned, but marriage changes the trajectory of both their lives. He forfeited his honeymoon and turned down two high-paying jobs until eventually, he is living on 320 Sycamore Lane in the Old Granville House in Bedford Falls, married with children, and working at the Building and Loan: all things he specified he did not want to do. His dreams slipped away slowly with each decision, and it isn’t until they’re lined up that it’s obvious what’s happening. He wanted to see the world and own nice things, but more than putzing around Europe, he wanted to help those around him. The Building and Loan was the last foothold against Potter controlling the town and in each situation, George chose others before himself. He loves others. He’s the kind of guy that if he were able to help his neighbor, but chose not to, would live in constant guilt.
More than his expectations of life, George expect himself to be decent and make the moral choice. While he was upset he couldn’t follow his dreams, he wasn’t outright mortified with the idea of living until he started lashing out uncontrollably. The loss of the bank deposit sets off the unraveling of his pieced-together life. George Bailey had failed every one of his dreams while men of lessor skill and wit had succeeded around him, and now he had failed himself. At his darkest, he felt like he had one chance to right the circumstances of his disastrous existence. His life insurance policy would cover the bank loss, and in the moment on the bridge, George was once again ready to choose others over himself.
George’s biggest contribution is Bailey Park which housed dozens of families who had escaped Potter’s slums. In the counter-reality, it’s replaced with a graveyard. George’s own brother is buried there as George didn’t exist to rescue him. Potter’s slums are inevitable as the local economy is trashed. Sam Wainwright’s father never built that soybean plastic factory in Bedford Falls because George wasn’t there to suggest it.
Bedford Falls is beautiful second time around because we see the contrast between literal life and death, but the town wasn’t born out of daisies and sweet swing dance parties: the sidewalks of Bedford are paved with George’s dead dreams.
Upon returning to Bedford Falls, George touches his split lip and rejoices at the tinge. The hurt is welcomed because it heralds the return of his joys. Yes, his lip is split, but that’s because he told off his daughter’s teacher. Yes, he’s deaf in one ear, but his brother is alive. Yes, the bank auditor and two officers are waiting for him at his house, but that’s because the Building and Loan still exists, and with it, Bedford Falls. The George we see at the end of the movie is tired. The dreams he had as a young man are long since dead. Yet the shattered husk of the Old Granville House is once again full of bright faces, Christmas lights, and that wooden fixture on the staircase banister that keeps breaking off. He runs past his problems and straight to the children he never planned on having. It’s a bittersweet reality, but one that we rejoice in as well because the dreams he had have been replaced by the people around him. Instead of the intangible experiences his younger self treasured, he is surrounded by love incarnate. As Clarence notes, “No man is a failure who has friends.”
George never did become an architect, but he did build things. As a young man, he had the blueprints of his life drawn to scale. He could put his finger exactly where he wanted to be in the next few weeks, months, even years. And yet, as George finds throughout getting older, life is less like a blueprint and more like a garden. We control where to bury the seeds and nurture the soft seedlings. We pluck weeds, break ground and pocket the fragile petals they drop around us, but we cannot control how the garden grows or when it blooms. The finished product is much less controllable than brick and mortar, and arguably, much more wonderful than we ever could have planned.