Every Life is Wonderful: A Review of the Classic Christmas Season Film “It’s A Wonderful Life”
The tradition has become firmly entrenched in my family to the point where it wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without it. Every year, after we return from evening Mass, we all cuddle up in the family room, dogs (with their annual ham bones to keep them occupied) and cats included. By the soft light of the Christmas tree, we sip hot chocolate, munch homemade cookies, and watch It’s a Wonderful Life. This heartwarming story follows the life of George Bailey, a dreamer stuck living a life he didn’t think he wanted, culminating in a sobering but uplifting Christmas Eve revelation. It can’t be taken too literally (angels are spirits, obviously, not deceased human beings who work to earn their wings), but it nevertheless remains a thought-provoking story, illustrating a valuable lesson through the protagonist’s character arc. By the end of the movie, George Bailey finally understands that true success and happiness lie in accepting and cooperating with the life God gave him while helping others along the way.
From the beginning, George fabricates an artificial vision of success for his life that leaves no room for his hometown – sleepy little Bedford Falls. Fascinated with exotic places since childhood, he declares to his future wife, Mary (whom he, as a twelve-year-old, had patronizingly lectured about where coconuts come from), “I’m going to shake the dust of this crummy town off my feet, and I’m going to see the world! Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum . . . and then I’m going to build . . . airfields, I’m going to build skyscrapers 100 stories high, I’m going to build bridges a mile long!” In the meantime, while George is completely fixated on these grand ambitions, his father is busy quietly extending his generosity to other people through the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.
Interestingly enough, George regards his father’s accomplishments in establishing the family business quite highly, but he still refuses to consider the possibility that his father’s simple definition of success could also apply to him. When his father tries to persuade him to permanently join the Building and Loan, George bluntly states, “I couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of my life in a shabby little office . . . I’d go crazy. I want to do something big and important!” He seems to overlook the fact that the Baileys are indeed accomplishing important things in that “shabby little office,” and it never occurs to him that perhaps he belongs in Bedford Falls.
Hints that God has a different plan for George’s life begin to come soon enough. Just as he is about to fulfill his dream and leave on a trip to Europe, his father dies suddenly, requiring George to stay home and help his Uncle Billy manage the Building and Loan until the board of directors decides its fate. He is still determined to leave town in time for college, however, until he finds himself facing a cruel dilemma. The board decides to keep running the Building and Loan, but only on the condition that George agrees to stay behind and take it over. Though reluctant, George nonetheless knows he can’t let it shut down, since the Building and Loan is the only obstacle preventing greedy, conniving businessman Henry Potter from monopolizing the entire town.
Consequently, he gives his college money to his brother Harry and waits four years, hoping he can go himself when Harry returns to replace him. Instead, Harry returns with a new wife, whose father has already offered him a job in his own company. Watching his dreams crumble before his eyes and realizing he may very well be stuck at the Building and Loan forever, George is even too depressed to appreciate Mary’s attempts to rekindle their old romance – at first. They soon marry, only for a run on the bank to spark another crisis at the Building and Loan. In an effort to soothe his frantic customers, George gives away the money set aside for his honeymoon, losing his last chance to leave Bedford Falls.
The message is perfectly clear in the way circumstances seem to conspire to keep George in his hometown. Though he admirably refuses to abandon his responsibility and forces himself to go along with his lot in life, deep down he refuses to fully accept it, which results in years of misery. True, his life isn’t turning out the way he planned, but he still has a lot to be thankful for. He and Mary have four children, and he’s friends with practically the entire population of Bedford Falls – except Henry Potter, of course. In addition, he turns the Building and Loan into an even bigger success, continuing his father’s legacy of providing decent homes at affordable prices for poor families. It doesn’t make him rich, but he gains even deeper rewards from it, helping many people get out of Potter’s slums.
Yet George still considers himself a failure because he never achieved his grandiose childhood ambitions, and he allows his gnawing discontent to prevent him from appreciating the many blessings in his life. Despondently, he asks his wife, “Why in the world did you ever marry a guy like me?” His melancholy slowly escalates over the years and finally explodes one Christmas Eve, when absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000, spelling bankruptcy for the Building and Loan. Driven to desperation, George breaks down in front of his family, storms out of the house, and, in a state of intoxication, finally contemplates suicide in the icy river, believing his family would be better off without him.
Enter Clarence, George’s guardian angel, sent down to help him in his darkest hour. After foiling his suicide attempt, Clarence seizes his opportunity when George bitterly wishes he had never been born, proceeding to grant him his wish. To his disbelief, George finds himself exploring a disconcerting and even sinister world utterly foreign from the one he knows – the world as it would have been if he had never existed. Without a George Bailey to stand up to Henry Potter, peaceful Bedford Falls has morphed into a raucous party town called Pottersville. All his friends, from Ernie the cab driver to Mr. Gower the druggist, are bitter caricatures of their true selves without George to influence their lives. His brother Harry had drowned as a child, lacking a big brother to rescue him. Furthermore, his Uncle Billy was committed to an insane asylum after losing the Building and Loan, and his mother has become a lonely widow, running a cheerless boardinghouse. Clarence sums it up well, saying, “Each man’s life touches so many others. When he’s gone, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
By this point, George can deny reality no longer, and the decisive blow comes when he finds Mary, now a lonely, spinster librarian. Finally, he sees the truth that he refused to acknowledge for so many years and pleads, “Help me, Clarence! Get me back! . . . Get me back to my wife and kids! . . . Please, God, let me live again!” His prayer is answered, and George exults upon rediscovering his life exactly the way he left it, bankruptcy and all. Now heedless of the missing $8,000, he runs home to a joyful reunion with Mary and the children – and a surprise. His family, friends, and neighbors, all the people whose lives he had touched for the better, rush to his aid and raise the money he needs.
More than just a warm, fuzzy Christmas story, It’s a Wonderful Life contains a great depth of substance and emotional power, plumbing the depths of George Bailey’s soul in all his despair and anguish. His thwarted aspirations nearly lead to his own destruction – until Providence intervenes to save him from himself and reveal the true worth of his seemingly undistinguished life. In the end, George’s chilling glimpse of the world in which he was never born convinces him that success and happiness don’t depend on fame and fortune but on love and service to others. As Clarence says, “No man is a failure who has friends!” Once George understands that simple but crucial lesson, he finds true peace and fulfillment, knowing his life serves a meaningful purpose. Hopefully, his story will prompt each of us to reach the same conclusion and embrace the life God has given us for the wonderful thing it is. With such an enduring message in this classic film, I know it will always remain an integral Christmas Eve tradition in my family, making us laugh and cry for years to come.
By Ellen Virginia
It’s a Wonderful Life is available for purchase on DVD at Amazon.com