Much like its protagonist, It’s a Wonderful Life was a financial failure in its day. Today it is probably one of the ten most well-known American films of all time. There’s an interesting story behind that, too. Frank Capra’s film was apparently the beneficiary of a clerical error that prevented the renewal of its studio copyright in 1974. In the next few years, television networks aired the film repeatedly, especially around the Christmas season. What had heretofore been a relatively obscure piece of Capra and star Jimmy Stewart’s filmography was suddenly a seasonal tradition for thousands of people. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine Christmas without It’s a Wonderful Life, but barring a mere typo, many of us might never have heard of it.
Doesn’t that story remind you of George Bailey? The film opens with the sound of many voices praying for George, including urgent prayers from his wife and children. We find out later that George is on the brink of despair and possibly suicide. Why? The short answer is that his uncle and business partner lost thousands of dollars of the Bailey Building and Loan’s funds. The real answer is that George thinks his entire life has been misplaced capital, a waste of ambition and heart that began the night he gave up college to save his father’s business and his hometown from the greedy millionaire Mr. Potter (played to perfection by Lionel Barrymore).
George is an adventurer and an intellect. As a boy working after school at Mr. Gower’s ice cream parlor, he boasts to the local girls that he reads National Geographic and knows where coconuts come from. He’s going to see the world, he says; “just wait and see.” He says the same thing years later to the beautiful Mary (Donna Reed, effortlessly delivering the film’s most important performance) in one of the most perfectly written scenes of romantic cinema: “Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow, and next year, and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy old town and I’m going to see the world!” The two are in love, but she’s the only one who knows it yet. Their first kiss (a chaste kiss that was nonetheless so passionate that the studios expressed concerns) follows an argument in which George vows to never be domesticated. The next scene is, of course, their wedding. “Just wait and see.”
Man’s greatest fear is not death but irrelevance. As the years pass, George fears he is becoming irrelevant. Capra and Stewart make George’s fears more corporeal by keeping them subtle and implied rather than monologued out. Potter, annoyed by George’s success, offers him a lucrative job that sorely tempts him. Remembering his father and his principles, he angrily rejects it, and then slowly walks home and wonders whether he made the right decision. I think this is a turning point for him. It’s the first time he realizes things could have been different. It’s not that he doesn’t have enough love (Mary tenderly tells him in this scene that she’s pregnant), it’s that he feels unworthy of the love he has.
Though universal, I believe these themes particularly resonate with men. It’s not for nothing that Jimmy Stewart, cinema’s premiere “common man,” was cast as George and has since made the role unimaginable in the hands of another. It’s also not for nothing that It’s a Wonderful Life released in 1946, right as thousands of American men were returning home from Europe wondering how and why to reassemble their lives.
The bottom finally falls out after George realizes he is facing criminal charges for the misplaced money (he won’t allow his uncle to be held responsible). Drunk and desperate, he drives to a bridge and is prepared to kill himself and advance his family a $10,000 life insurance policy when another man falls in and cries for help. You know what happens next. Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers in one of his final roles) is film’s most famous guardian angel, and he gives George a “great gift: A chance to see what the world would be like without you.” But what happens in the film’s final act is only partially about why George is valuable to the world. It’s more about why the people and places in George’s life are valuable to him. That’s why Clarence leaves him a message in the film’s final scene: “No man is a failure who has friends.”
It’s a Wonderful Life gets our eyes moist every Christmas because it speaks to something elemental in our human nature: The tendency to evaluate our lives based on something other than love. We classify ourselves and others as “successes” and “failures” based on hundreds of criteria. Thus, our lives are tangled knots of complication and misery, when we could be remembering that our Lord summed up the entire Law and Prophets with these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The measure of success in eternity is love for God and love for neighbor. The small kingdoms that we build up are sandcastles, washed away at high tide to our grief and frustration but unable to ballast our lives with meaning.
Capra loved stories about small people who meant something (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds). It’s a Wonderful Life is a tale about a small person who meant something to other small people. The film works on every level because it is warm and human, not epic or philosophical. In a lesser film, Clarence the angel would have been a major character, chortling life lessons to George and to us. Clarence is not a deus ex machina though; he is there to meekly point out what’s been in plain sight the whole time. That’s how life works. Rarely do we grow by learning something new. Most of the time, it’s by relearning something we forgot.
(Postscript: Do not for any reason view the colorized version of It’s a Wonderful Life.)