What is the worth of a life? This is something art and stories question all of the time, and invariably something any person wonders about themselves. One assumes, with time and space being as vast as they are, that they are not very significant in the grand scheme of things. Maybe we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that we are the exception, but for the most part, entire planets and civilizations come and go, erased by nature. But if one is to look just a little closer, they see that nothing quite exists in a vacuum. That while we are here, we’re consistently bouncing off of one another, and that not even interstellar configurations live in total isolation. Even when unseen, in methods large and small, we are connected.
Certainly, George Bailey (James Stewart) is connected to Bedford Falls. His eponymous existence chronicled in Frank Capra’s holiday standard It’s a Wonderful Life on the surface lives and dies solely within the confines of his small town, culminating in a sort of crossroads on one snowy Christmas Eve. Capra’s film is perhaps the quintessential Christmas classic. More so than A Christmas Story, or Die Hard, or even A Muppet Christmas Carol, Capra’s multi-decade spanning tale of a single man is unmistakably Biblical. And much like the stories of the Holy Bible, It’s a Wonderful Life is riddled with darkness and trepidation before one finds peace or catharsis, not to mention that Capra’s film is one for the ages.
Everyone loves George Bailey. Certainly, everyone is concerned for George Bailey when, one late night before Christmas, we hear multiple households praying for him, including his own family. So, the cosmos, as they are, conspire to give George the guidance to get him through these trying times. Of course, once an angel still looking to earn his wings named Clarence (Henry Travers) is put on the case, he’s first caught up on the life of George Bailey. George is the kind of kid who will tease his little brother Harry (Todd Karns) while they slide down snow shovels over a frozen river, but immediately jump in to save his brother, even if that means going deaf in one ear. But that isn’t going to stop George from seeing the world. He’ll work at the soda shop or for his father, but all of the sacrifice will be worth the effort.
And yet, George constantly puts his life on hold. His dad dies, so he has to put off his plans to work on a boat traveling the globe. When the board of their business Building and Loan says they’ll only stay open if George stays to run things, he has to give up going to college and send his brother instead. When World War II comes around, George can’t even enlist, since he’s deaf in one ear–Harry, on the other hand, saves a transport and earns a Medal of Honor. George does manage to marry, well, Mary (Donna Reed). And even though they have to give up $2,000 meant for their honeymoon to keep the B&N from collapsing when patrons try to make a run on the bank, and even though their house is derelict and abandoned, they make their life work.
George always does the right thing. And for a while, things go his way. By keeping his business, with their decidedly generous practices, open, George is the only roadblock between the town and the money-grubbing Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Though George is never rich, he still produces sturdy homes that he sells affordably–the opposite of Mr. Potter’s strategy. He even gives a little cash to his friend Violet (Gloria Grahame) so she can get out of Bedford Falls. But because George is never prosperous, running B&N leaves him in precarious standing. So, when, on that fateful Christmas Eve, his Uncle Billy (the great Thomas Mitchell) loses $8,000 meant to be deposited on behalf of the business, and because losing that much money is enough to both bankrupt their company and send them to jail, George spirals out of control, beating his uncle, lashing out at his family–Mary and he have four kids together by this point–and ends on a drunken bender.
When George crashes his car into a tree, he stumbles to a bridge, where he considers throwing himself into a rushing river below him–perhaps the same one he pulled his brother from years ago. And as George puts his toes over that proverbial edge, who should he see, but Clarence drowning in the water below. George jumps into the water, and pulls Clarence out. Clarence is pretty up front about being an angel, which George doesn’t believe. So, when George rhetorically wishes that he had never been born, Clarence decides to show George a bizarro world where George is never around to touch the lives around him, where he was never around to act as the sacrificial lamb for the people of Bedford Falls.
It’s a Wonderful Life is associated with Christmas, and is sometimes pigeonholed as a saccharine, feel-good picture. To be sure, It’s a Wonderful Life is filled with moments of warmth and uplift, but the film is often pitch dark. While George Bailey is unwilling to say no, or do anything that isn’t for the benefit of his neighbors, every immolation leaves a taste of resentment. George Bailey lives out the Book of Job, if Job were a little more restless. All George wants to do is see a little bit of the world, to find himself and cultivate his unmistakable potential on his own terms. But as George finds out, we don’t always get to pick where our gifts are needed most. Everyone George knows passes him by–he even gives his friend the idea for a business that makes his friend rich. Of course he’s angry and hungry. Yet, he maintains George Bailey, even at his lowest point, cannot shake his innate decency.
70-plus years later, and the most celebrated holiday film in cinematic history, we all know the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. We know the run through Bedford Falls. We know the excited dash up the stairs, as George embraces his kids. We know how Billy and Mary have gone out raising money all over town, enough to save B&N. We know Harry’s quietly tearjerking proclamation, “A toast to my big brother George, the richest man in town.” We know that the good George does for others is enough. Maybe he lives merely to fight another day against Mr. Potter, Potter is on his way out, and George has plenty of fight left in him. And because George takes care of so many people for so long, they’re able to take care for him.
It’s a Wonderful Life was not particularly successful upon release. Stunted by so-so critical reception, relative box office failure, as well as some accusations of Communist overtones levied by none other than the FBI, the film managed to garner some solid Oscar love–four nominations, including Best Picture–but otherwise faded. Not until the rights lapsed in the mid-70s did the film begin to gain a following. By the 80s, It’s a Wonderful Life entered the pantheon. One wonders what other films might be saved if a bit of clerical ineptitude and opportunism made them easier to see. But the salvation of It’s a Wonderful Life is a pretty terrific accident, possibly a miracle. The film’s own journey to canonization is not unlike that of George Bailey’s own exaltation. Maybe the impact takes a bit of time, but after a while, the aftershocks, the blessings, even, are impossible to ignore.