Merry Christmas: Reflections on “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Corey
“You see George; you’ve really had a wonderful life.”
Ugh. Gets me every time. Shamefully enough, I hadn’t even seen Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film about the life of George Bailey until the winter of 2007. My brother had watched it with his then girlfriend and raved about it. So, in hopes of a cozy Christmas bonding session with some dear friends, I had stolen his copy to watch at a Christmas get-together. By the end, I found myself choking back tears and glowing with happiness.
Since that night, I’ve promised myself that each and every year before Christmas I would watch that movie with a person or people that I care about, people who love that movie as much as I do. Fortunately, that’s not altogether that difficult. So many people seem to love this movie, and rightfully so. Now that I’ve watched it this season, I felt an urge to properly digest it and write about my feelings here on Snippets. And because we all at least should know the story, I probably won’t be sparing any of the details.
My concept of the ideal Christmas movie before that first, pivotal viewing was “A Christmas Story” or “Jingle All the Way”. And it’s possibly for that reason that I never really understood the true spirit of Christmas until I was almost twenty years old. While each of those two movies is entertaining in its own right, films like that simply don’t capture the spirit of joy and love that “It’s a Wonderful Life” inspires.
For those of you that might not know, “It’s a Wonderful Life” starts on Christmas Eve. A man by the name of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is about to commit suicide. We don’t know why or how – all we know is that George is in trouble. Up in the heavens, Franklin and Joseph (head angels) assign the lower angel Clarence (Henry Travers) to help George. But before Clarence is sent down to earth, they review George’s life leading up to that point.
As a child, George quickly distinguishes himself as a person worthy of admiration. When his little brother falls through ice into frigid water, George dives in to save him with hesitation, ultimately sacrificing hearing in his own left ear. And then, while working for a druggist delirious with grief, George refuses to deliver pills that were mistakenly filled with poison, and even suffers a drunken beating at the hands of his boss. But rather than turn old Mr. Gower in for almost-murder or assault on a minor, George promises to keep it a secret. So in short, even as a boy George is more brave, loyal, selfless, and trustworthy than most of us. What a guy!
In his family life, George is born to a loving family mired with financial setbacks. His father founded the Building & Loan, a bank that offers up a reasonable means for the struggling citizens of Bedford Falls to find or develop affordable housing. But the evil Mr. Potter, literally crippled by his miserliness, is a cutthroat businessman who will stop at nothing in his endless pursuit of wealth. In a certain way, Bedford Falls is a simple town with typical problems. People are struggling to find a means to live comfortably and a loveless few try to take advantage of that.
But then there’s George. He’s a bright young-man with dreams of traveling the world and working as an architect. But like Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Every home is something that even when we think we want to leave, we can never get away from it. It’ll always be a part of us, and a place we can come back to. For a great number of reasons, George is made to never leave Bedford Falls. He has to sacrifice his aspirations to do the right thing, and as we all know the right thing is hardly ever the easiest path for us to take. George takes over at the Building & Loan and supports his brother’s college education, never having a chance to pursue his own. He falls in love and settles down with a delightful girl named Mary, and they have several beautiful children.
But, they live in a drafty old house, and George has to watch his friends and family leave home to become fabulously wealthy or even war heroes. A whole laundry list of grievances and unfulfilled desires proves to be an overwhelming load on Christmas Eve when George’s uncle misplaces eight thousand dollars that belongs to the Building & Loan. It means scandal, disaster, and potentially a prison sentence. After a lifetime of sacrifice, being fiscally poor, and trying so desperately to help his community, this is George’s reward. In a bought of despair, he thinks that all he has left is a life insurance policy on himself, the one thing that can save his family. But the prayers of his family and friends echo about in the heavens, and down comes rosy-cheeked Clarence to answer them in the last half-hour or so of the film.
Clarence is able to magically show George a world in which he had never existed, where Mr. Potter has long since dominated Bedford Falls and changed it into an overly commercialized Pottersville. Faces that were once George’s cheery friends are now sullen, miserable, and edgy. What always hits me as the most emotionally charged scene of the movie is just after George runs out of the ruins of the house that should have been his to the local cemetery. There, he happens upon the grave of his brother, Harry, who instead of being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II (which George is overwhelmingly proud of him for), died as a little boy when he fell through the ice. It’s in this moment that George truly loses it and breaks down, and the grief in his voice at his exchange with Clarence never fails to leave me choked up:
[George has discovered his brother Harry’s tombstone]
Clarence: [explaining] Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.
George Bailey: That’s a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport!
Clarence: Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry.
The lesson that George is to learn, the lesson that we all ought to live each and every day of our lives well beyond and well before each Christmas, is that the love that we share with each other is the greatest gift there is. It’s just like Clarence tells us in the movie: “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?” We’re all in this together. Even if we can’t feel it when we become overwhelmed by stress or any other adversity, there are people out there that love us, that think about us, and that pray for us in times of need. And it’s that spirit of giving and sacrifice – the one that George lives out so well – is what Christmas and the person of Jesus is all about. Jesus was a gift that God gave us, an incredible sacrifice that we didn’t even deserve. But if we deserved it, then it wouldn’t exactly be a gift, now would it?
It’s only fitting that in the final scene of the movie, George is given his old life back and runs home in the snow, where a policeman is waiting to arrest him. But all he can do, with all the joy surging through his heart, is to hold and hug and kiss his family. And in comes the entire town, bursting with goodwill, throwing money onto the table to make up for the lost eight thousand. Every person that George has ever helped returns the favor and helps him in his time of need. Last, but oh so far from the least, comes in Harry Bailey, the war hero revered by the whole town. But he takes a bow toasts to George, the real hero, “A toast to my big brother George: the richest man in town!” But we know that you can’t count George’s wealth by the bills and coins piled on his kitchen table that was given by the community. It’s written in the gesture of generosity itself, it’s tallied up in the hugs from his children and kisses from his wife, and it’s measured in the smiles and laughter shared with everyone that he loves.
So remember: no man is a failure who has friends.
A very Merry Christmas from Snippets!