It’s a Wonderful Life – 1946 – dir. Frank Capra
“You know, George, I feel that in a small way, we’re doing something important…” –Peter Bailey.
For me, this one line sums up the entire film. No matter what it is we dream of doing, the truly important things are those that we have already accomplished.
George Bailey (James Stewart) is a man who dreams of greatness; of building skyscrapers and travelling the world. Instead of sailing the seven seas or even going to college, George remains rooted in his small hometown, running the family business and married with children. He barely makes enough money to survive, yet he constantly helps others in the town of Bedford Falls to live better lives.
George really does have a wonderful life; he just simply refuses to see it. He’s only truly equipped with the capacity to see what he doesn’t have, what he missed out on and things that might have been. George voluntarily carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. The inherent flaw within the character of George Bailey is that he is blinded by envy and a deep desire to branch out of Bedford Falls. He is envious of those who have gone to college, including his wife Mary (Donna Reed); and of those who have travelled. And this prevents him from seeing just exactly what kind of life he truly has. It’s almost as though he goes through his life with blinders on.
George does have to constantly fight off Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in order to prevent him from taking over the entire town. George is frustrated at almost every turn, and the only other character who seems bothered by this fact is Potter. Why? The only place that George seems to feel any sort of pride in at all is the Building and Loan; which he fights for at any cost. It is also the only source of Potter’s frustration because his empire cannot be complete as long as the Baileys are still standing.
Then $8000 goes missing (ok, so Potter stole it), and George realizes he’ll be held responsible. A warrant is issued for his arrest. The company he’d worked so hard to keep afloat is about to founder and George, with no other choice, turns to Potter for help. When he’s denied, George contemplates suicide. The enormous weight that George chooses to carry on his shoulders has finally done him in.
For me, the last twenty minutes of the film are the most poignant. Instead of ending his life, George saves the life of an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers). He’s spent his life saving others, so this one moment hardly changes his mind. “I’m worth more dead than alive…” he insists as he clings to his life insurance policy. So, George is given the rare opportunity to see what life would be like if he had never been born.
The town would have been completely taken over by Potter (even the name would be different); people would live in slums; crime would run rampant; his wife would become an old maid; his children wouldn’t exist; his home would be a broken-down old building; his mother would have lost her only son Harry when he was a child because there was no one to pull him out of thin ice; the pharmacist would have gone to prison for poisoning a child.
George is terrified by the vast differences and finally comes to realize that he actually does have a good life without building tall skyscrapers or travelling the world. And even without the money that went missing.
What would the world as we know it now be like if we had never been born? It’s a highly philosophical question, of course, but for a moment the film challenges us to stop and think about our own lives.
In doing so, it gives a new perspective to the things that we have achieved; even if it might be different than the dreams we had when we were young. It sheds a bright light on those we have encountered and the people we hold dear. For if we had never been born, where would all of those people be?
It also proves the point that each life on earth is interconnected and affects another life in some way. One person truly can affect change. George Bailey’s life impacted so many others that the absence of his existence greatly altered reality. True, George is simply a character in a film, but his life begs the question: how does my existence, my wonderful life as I see it, impact others? I think that’s perhaps the most profound point that the film makes.
If George hadn’t made such a powerful impact with his life then the film couldn’t have ended the way it did. Every single person in town, with the exception of his nemesis, donated money to help the Building and Loan. So, while George dreamt of building tall buildings, traveling and making money, he didn’t stop to pay attention to all of the good he did with his life.
“You never know what you have until it’s gone.” That’s how the old saying goes. And, George clearly embodies that expression. He was so used to disappointment and the feeling of being stuck in his life that he didn’t realize that he actually was truly blessed. He wasn’t alone; he did have people he could turn to. There was no need to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.
If one man’s life can so profoundly affect the lives of others, as George’s does the entire population of this town, then it would stand to reason that no one person should have to carry so much burden. George simply didn’t realize this one truth until the very end of the film when the entire town began to pour money out on a table in front of him.
“Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” That was Clarence’s inscription in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at the end of the film. It is an incredibly valid statement, but it’s equally true that no one who gives of themselves so freely to others can ever be a failure.
For George Bailey, the proverbial Everyman, it took hitting rock bottom and pondering giving up “God’s greatest gift” for him to realize that there’s more to is life than meets the eye. He did build things of value and worth; not just houses, but he gave people hope in the promise of a fresh start in their own lives.
This is another point the film makes: it’s not always about how much money you have. You could have all the money in the world, as Potter did, but if you don’t help or show kindness to others, then in the end all you’re left with are green pieces of paper.
George Bailey eventually learned that his life truly is worth living, regardless of whatever might be thrown his way, by having his eyes opened to just exactly how much he had accomplished. Challenge yourself, take a look around you and see all that you have achieved. You might be surprised to discover that, in spite of seemingly overwhelming challenges, obstacles, or even a greedy, mean old man, you have succeeded. The only people who never succeed are the ones who didn’t bother to at least try.