Directed by Frank Capra
December 20, 1946
By now we are all probably were aware of the plot of this film so I am not sure if there really is a need to go into it. Instead, I will launch into other things.
It’s A Wonderful Life is a film set in a small town that has characters you would find in a small town. Nobody is overly worldly. The story is about what success really is and about doing the right thing even when it is hard. It is about family and friends and how good deeds done for the right reason have vast repercussions that are not easily clear.
George Bailey (the legendary Jimmy Stewart) is a small-town man with big dreams. Those dreams though are repeatedly scuttled by his sense of responsibility. From his dreams of college to his dreams of a lavish honeymoon or his dreams of even escaping the town of Bedford Falls for anywhere, one instance after another forces this man of deep conviction and a deep sense of duty to forgo what he wants to do good for others.
And as time goes on George becomes bitter because of it. He becomes bitter over his responsibilities and angry at himself. He begins to hate the small savings and loan that his father and his uncle have kept going for over 25 years that out of his sense of responsibility to his friends and neighbors he has taken over. And even at points that anger and bitterness extend to his wife and children as they are just one more thing that keeps him from being what he views as a success and achieving his dreams.
The character of George Bailey views himself as a failure for never having accomplished anything he dreamed of. He never built bridges or skyscrapers or traveled the world. Instead he stayed around in a small town and kept a small business running that provided homes for friends and family and he did not feel that was enough. He was focused on material things as a sign of success and did not quite get that he was still a success and a great man.
In the world of Bedford Falls, George Bailey was all that stood against Mr. Henry F Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who is an unscrupulous businessman who seeks to control everything in that small town through any means necessary. He is the picture of a decrepit old man whose internal evil has manifested in physical form on his body. His one nemesis-the people that have always stood in his way-are the Bailey Family and their tiny business. And Potter sees George as his chance to finally beat them.
Mr. Potter tries to pressure or tempt or just undermine George at every opportunity. Knowing George wants to leave town, as a board member of Bailey Brothers Savings and Loan he votes to dissolve the institution upon the death of George’s father but George stays on because that is the only way it will remain open.
Potter offers George a high paying position like a tempting devil. It would provide him with the kind of material life he has strived for but George quickly realizes this is another attempt to trick the family man and dissolve the one institution that stands in his way. George, partially horrified that he considered the offer, turns down and lays into Potter.
His best shot though comes from the absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) who accidentally switches newspapers with Potter. His has the Bailey Savings and Loan funds in it. Potter sees his opportunity and keeps the money hidden waiting for the problems to begin.
It takes a moment of being at rock-bottom and of complete desperation for George Bailey to truly see how successful he is and that success is not always material goods. With the aid of an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) he sees just how impactful he has been on the world and how much of a difference he has made. His actions, presence, and influence kept Violet (Gloria Grahame) from ruining her life for example. His ability to provide a home that Ernie (Frank Faylen) could afford kept Ernie’s family together was another success. His attention to detail and desire to do right kept Mr. Gower (HB Warner) the pharmacist from accidentally poisoning a child. The town of Bedford Falls itself was a quiet and safe place and not some rowdy hellhole where dreams and people want to die because of George Bailey doing the right thing time after time.
George’s presence kept Uncle Billy out of the insane asylum and his mother (Beulah Bondi) from becoming bitter and angry. But not only that but his actions had repercussions for others far beyond his immediate circle. At a young age George (Bobbie Anderson as George as a child) saves his brother Harry (Georgie Nokes as Harry as a child) drowning when the ice gives way on a frozen pond. By saving Harry, George in the future saved a troop transport during World War II. George’s good deeds spread beyond the town of Bedford Falls and beyond the walls they incurred in. Without him his town would have been a seedy hellhole. Potter would have taken over and ruined lives.
George pursued material success. Yet at every turn when it was within his grasp, responsibility or doing the right thing got in the way so he deferred his dreams until the next time and then the next time until the next time became never. Yet in his time of desperation and need those people he helped and who in turn were able to help others helped him when he needed it the most.
That does beg the question: would the bank examiner (who even contributed to the pot to cover the lost funds) just be able to forget the disappearance of the money once contributions equaled it? Or are we to assume that George would be out of hot water and only under suspicion until an investigation fingered Potter as the real thief and Uncle Billy probably spent time in the slammer for mishandling money? Those are things I always was curious about.
Mary Hatch-Bailey (Donna Reed) is George’s rock. She is the classic supportive wife, but she is not a two-dimensional item to help propel George’s story. She is a part of that story and important to the story. She was his motivation at times and at others the one that is there to give him the strength he lacks. She after all called Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson) to get help. Nobody else seem to have thought of that.
We have small town characters that you could possibly find in any small town. Bert the cop (John Wayne regular Ward Bond) and Ernie the cab driver are all people that would not be that difficult to find as your neighbors. Violet Bick or Mr. Martini (Bill Edmunds) or even pharmacist Mr. Gower. Violet is what we will call today an empowered woman. She is not ashamed of her sexuality and is not afraid to use it and it has caused her to earn a bad reputation, right or wrong, in the town of Bedford Falls.
Frank Capra created a simple story filled with universal truths and good old fashion morality. Do the right thing and you will be rewarded. Do the right thing for the right reasons and you will be rewarded. The road may not be easy though.
It has been said by some that Jimmy Stewart when he is the broken George Bailey at the end of his rope and without hope he is not acting but letting go of all the pent-up emotion he had from his time in World War II. The man was a bomber pilot. He served on the front lines and went on missions that could have cost him his life and sent men on missions that did cost them their lives and he never quite got over it. This role was his first after returning to Hollywood and those wounds were still fresh.
It’s A Wonderful Life is quite possibly a perfect film. It is beautifully directed. It has great music and great acting and an amazing script. Bring those you love along and watch it!