What would the Christmas holiday season be like without Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life? For millions around the world, watching this inspiring, heartwarming movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed is as much a part of the Christmas celebration as putting cookies and milk out for Santa Claus, caroling, drinking eggnog, or trimming the tree.
Of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen during the forty-one years I’ve lived so far, there isn’t one I can think of that is so quintessentially American as It’s a Wonderful Life. Part comedy, part melodrama, and part supernatural fantasy, the film recounts the life of an apparently ordinary guy, George Bailey, who keeps getting the short end of the stick when it comes to realizing his extraordinary dreams and plans for the future.
However, I’ve learned first-hand that professing my love for this film is sure to provoke arguments with those who accept the ethics of rational individualism. On its face, the message of the film appears to endorse self-sacrifice for the good of others. But I disagree with that interpretation—and that’s the reason for this special review. In fact, I think that the choices made by George Bailey during his life were truly wonderful, embodying a full and proper conception of personal, long-term self-interest.
The movie opens to the voices of George’s loved ones—family and friends who are sending up prayers to God to take care of and watch out for George, who’s fallen on the hardest of hard times on Christmas Eve. George’s bad luck doesn’t look like it’s about to change when he is assigned a guardian angel (“second class”) named Clarence, a benevolent bumbler who hasn’t even “earned his wings.” We then learn what has brought George Bailey to the brink of tragedy as director Capra tells the man’s life story in a long flashback that makes up most of the picture.
Ever since boyhood, George Bailey has been there for others. When he was twelve, he rescued his brother, Harry, from drowning in a pond after he had crashed through the ice while sledding. Later, working as a drugstore delivery boy, he prevented his distraught, drunken boss from accidentally dispensing poison in prescription capsules.
As he grows up, George dreams of bigger things than can be found in the confines of his small town: seeing Europe, becoming a civil engineer. About to head off to tramp through Europe before going to college, he shares with his girlfriend, Mary (Donna Reed), his secret aspirations:
Mary, I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow and the next day, and next year and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world! 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!
But at every crucial turn in his life, George’s grandiose dreams are thwarted by the responsibilities of everyday life. As he’s about to set sail, he learns that his father had a fatal stroke. After the funeral, George stays in Bedford Falls to run the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan—the family business that his father and Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) had built up—rather than allow it to slip into the grasp of the family’s avaricious nemesis, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Potter is the town’s Scrooge-like magnate, a corrupt, power-lusting slumlord who owns most of the key businesses in BedfordFalls. George puts his dreams on hold while he manages the business—and while he watches his younger brother, Harry, go off to college instead.
Today, we seem less eager to make the kind of hard choices that the men and women of Capra’s and Stewart’s generation did.
Then, rather than jump at the opportunity to invest in the promising plastics industry, George goes after his true love, Mary, finally proposing to her. One of the movie’s pivotal scenes occurs on the day of their marriage. Just as they are about to embark on their European honeymoon, fate again steps in: their wedding date is “Black Tuesday,” October 29, 1929—the day of the stock market crash. En route to the train station, George and Mary see the people of BedfordFalls running toward the building and loan. George rushes over to find that Uncle Billy has panicked and shut the doors to depositors, having disbursed all the money on hand. Worse, Mr. Potter telephones and tells George that he will “help” bail out the business by offering its stockholder-members fifty cents on the dollar for every share.
While everyone is losing his head, George keeps his cool, despite the throng of terrified customers demanding their money. George staves off the building and loan’s collapse not by whining to the crowd to bail him out, but by appealing to their long-term self-interest: by asking them not to sell out their future to Potter.
You’re thinking about this place all wrong, as if I have the money back in the safe. The money’s not here. Well, your money’s in Joe’s house, that’s right next to yours. And the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Maitlin’s house, and a hundred others. You’re lending them the money to build, and then they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can…. Now, listen to me, I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets a hold of this building and loan, there will never be another decent house built in this town…. Joe, you had one of those Potter houses, didn’t you? Well, have you forgotten, have you forgotten what he charged you for that broken-down shack? Here, Ed, remember last year, when things weren’t going so well, you couldn’t make your payments? Well, you didn’t lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would’ve let you keep it? Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Potter isn’t selling, he’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicking and he’s not…. Now, we can get through this thing all right; we’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.
I once argued with an Objectivist about that scene, maintaining that George and Mary did the right thing by using their $2,000 honeymoon nest egg to help their depositors weather the storm. But all my friend could see in that scene—indeed, in the whole movie—was altruism. “One of the very first lines in that movie,” he told me, “is ‘he never thinks of himself’!”
But was that true? Consider what would have happened had George and Mary gone on their honeymoon instead of bailing out their building and loan. Yes, they would have had an enjoyable, relaxing couple of months in Europe; but what would they have come home to? The business that George’s father had sweat blood to create and keep afloat would have gone bankrupt. Not only would George and Mary have had no source of income, but their depositors—family, friends, loved ones—would have seen their life savings evaporate. The housing development George had built would have fallen into Potter’s hands.
For George, the choice was between short-term pleasure and long-term priorities. Did he choose irrationally?
What makes It’s a Wonderful Life work so well is that we get to see a different, less readily apparent kind of heroism in George Bailey. Sure, it’s easy to notice and admire the swashbuckling valor of a Scarlet Pimpernel or the “damn the torpedoes” military bravery of a John Wayne. But the real world doesn’t always present opportunities for obvious and flamboyant heroism. More often than not, it presents instead tough value choices that reveal an individual’s true priorities—and his true character.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a testament to the power of free will when the going gets tough. In every instance when George faces adversities, he could make the easy choice, opting for the fleeting promise of instant gratification. But instead, he consistently makes the harder decision to delay immediate pleasure in order to achieve or preserve his larger, lasting, most profound values.
Today, most people watching the scenes in the building and loan’s offices probably cannot quite grasp the bold, life-changing message on the banner that hangs there: “Own Your Own Home.” But I remember as a kid talking with my father about what it was like for him growing up in a Depression-era coal mining town in West Virginia. “You had to have at least a 50 percent down payment to buy a home in those days,” he told me. “If you were poor, you had to rent.” More than any other movie I’ve seen, It’s a Wonderful Life makes real the enormous benefits of the credit revolution, a tribute to “man’s faith in man.”
To Frank Capra, it was men like George Bailey who helped lift the working class into the middle class. Capra considered this film his personal favorite and put into it a lot of his own experiences as a first-generation immigrant from Sicily. It’s a Wonderful Life is his love letter to the American Dream.
What makes the movie so credible, and Jimmy Stewart so believable as George Bailey, is that he and Capra had both faced similar tough choices just months before it was shot. It’s a Wonderful Life was the first movie they worked on after World War II. Shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Stewart joined the U.S. Army Air Force and served as a decorated bomber pilot. Capra spent most of the war shooting the Why We Fight series of propaganda films that proved so crucial to the Allied war effort. Both men could easily have avoided service: Capra was too old when the war began, and Stewart flunked his first physical, being too thin for service. But they put aside the glamorous lifestyle and money Hollywood afforded them for the higher purpose of defending America and freedom. I only wish that such values were held in higher esteem by Americans now, in supporting the war effort against the terrorist threat. Today, we seem less eager to make the kind of hard choices that the men and women of Capra’s and Stewart’s generation did.
The movie’s famous climax takes place on Christmas Eve. BedfordFalls awaits the return of its hometown hero—George’s brother, Harry (Todd Karns). As a Navy fighter pilot, Harry saved a transport ship full of American troops by shooting down a Japanese torpedo bomber. However, a few hours before his arrival back home, the building and loan comes up short $8,000. Uncle Billy has absentmindedly mislaid the money, and now, with the bank examiner and police breathing down his neck, the distraught George sees his entire life coming apart. After fighting Potter all his life, he’s reduced to pleading before him, begging to borrow the cash to rescue the building and loan. His only collateral is $500 equity in a life insurance policy. The smirking Potter mocks him, saying, “Why, George, you’re worth more dead than alive!
George soon finds himself standing alone in the blustery snow atop a bridge, weeping in drunken desperation, thinking about jumping into the icy rapids below.
At that very moment, guardian angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) leaps into the river himself, giving George the opportunity to let his inherent goodness emerge once more. George rescues Clarence, then slowly learns the incredible truth: that the old man is really an angel sent to protect him.
Even so, still believing that his life has been a failure, he tells the eccentric Clarence that he’s wasting his time. “I wish I’d never been born,” George mumbles bitterly.
The words inspire Clarence to grant George his wish. In the film’s closing moments, he gives the man a shocking tour of what BedfordFalls would have been like if George Bailey had never existed.
“The importance of the individual is the theme that it tells."
The housing subdivision that George envisioned is never built; it becomes “Potter’s Field,” a graveyard for paupers. The wife of his cabbie friend, Ernie (Frank Faylen), leaves him because Ernie wasted his money paying rent for one of Potter’s tenements, instead of investing in his own home. Deprived of the chance to lead a productive life with the building and loan, oddball Uncle Billy is eventually committed to an insane asylum. George’s beloved Mary remains a spinster; their children are never born. And BedfordFalls itself—a small, thriving American community right out of a Norman Rockwell illustration—deteriorates into “Pottersville,” a sleazy town full of bars, strip joints, and pawn shops.
Most devastating to George, Clarence leads him to Harry’s gravestone in Potter’s Field.
“Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and drowned at the age of nine,” he informs George.
“That’s a lie!” George protests. “Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport!”
“Every man on that transport died,” Clarence corrects him. “Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry.… You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”
“You have been given a great gift,” Clarence adds, “a chance to see what the world would be like without you.”
As I do every Christmas, this year I’ll again be watching It’s a Wonderful Life with my family. I’ll once more share with my loved ones Frank Capra’s timeless tale of a man who always remained loyal to his highest and dearest values, and who ennobled the lives of everyone he touched through his common sense, farsighted thinking, and uncommon integrity.
To those who might dismiss George’s story as not the stuff of epic heroism, I can only repeat the director’s own words. Decades after It’s a Wonderful Life first appeared, Frank Capra said: “The importance of the individual is the theme that it tells. That no man is a failure, that every man has something to do with his life. If he’s born, he’s born to dosomething.”
He added: “To some of us, all that meets the eye is larger than life, including life itself. Who can match the wonder of it?”