Is it Really Such a Wonderful Life?


It’s that time of year again, time to hang the holly and mistletoe, and decorate the tree. It’s also time to put that favorite Christmas classic into the DVD player. I am, of course, talking about Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Wonderful LifeWe all know the story (but I’ll recap anyway): George Bailey is a small-town hero while growing up, but with itchy feet and big ambitions. As crises come up, he takes over the running of the family building and loan. Through his guidance, the building and loan becomes a stable enterprise and saves the community from the avaricious Mr. Potter. Thanks to an error made by his uncle, George faces a financial and legal crisis that could spell his downfall. Suicidal, he gets a visit from an angel who shows him what the community and people he love would be like had he never existed. Seeing the impact that his life has had, he chooses to embrace his life, while the many people he has helped or saved all rush to his aid. (And Clarence, the angel, gets his wings.) It’s a moving story, incredibly well told and I love to watch it, at least once a year.

George Lassos the Moon pictureHowever, I think that the story has a darker side that we ignore while we watch George and Mary Bailey fall in love and start their family. Let’s look at from a slightly different angle:

George Bailey grows up in a small town where, as a child, he saves the lives of his brother and a sick child through bravery and standing up to his anguished boss. While he is growing up, he dreams of travel and of getting a college education that will allow him to see the world while building things. He is a young member of the National Geographic Society, and has a strong interest in construction and engineering.

George waits for his brother Harry to graduate from high school before going to college, to ensure that one or the other of them will be available to work at the building and loan. When his father dies, before George can go to college, George sends Harry to college in his place to ensure the survival of the building and loan. After four years, Harry comes back with a fiancee and a job offer, so George again sacrifices his higher education to allow Harry to take advantage of the job opportunity, and remains at the building and loan. He continues heading up the building and loan (underpaid, as shown by the scene in which Mr. Potter offers him a job) while he falls in love and begins to raise a family in the house that he and Mary renovate by hand. His stewardship allows the Bailey Building and Loan to continue to thrive, and hides the growing incompetence (and possible dementia) of Uncle Billy. Doing a job that calls for orderly precision (Holland Code “Conventional”) while his temperament and interests give him satisfaction when making things (Holland Code “Realistic”) eats away at his soul every day that he goes in to work (though the service he provides — Holland Code “Social” — does seem to give him satisfaction), but he puts a brave face on things for his family… until a crisis hits.

George Bailey on the bridge.

Thanks to Billy Bailey’s over-exuberant blundering, the Bailey Building and Loan loses $8,000 (in the lap of Mr. Potter, a member of the building and loan’s board). This pushes George over the edge, pushing the stress of the sacrifices he makes for his family and community, the anger he feels at surrendering his soul piece-by-piece, and his self loathing at failing to follow his dreams and gifts all out into the open. He goes on an uncharacteristic rage-filled series of rants, tries to drown his sorrows at the local bar, and decides that rather than have to implicate his uncle or face the embarrassment of his recent actions — or the guy he sees in the mirror every morning — he will throw himself off the bridge.

While George steels himself to go over the rail, heavenly intervention arrives in the form of Angel Second Class Clarence. After a brief debate, Clarence arranges for George to see what Bedford Falls would have been like without him, beginning the act of the film that many people consider its darker section. (Supposedly even darker than a man giving up all his dreams to do work that he hates.) Of course, we never get to see the world that may have been if George had pursued his dreams.

The George Bailey fundraiser/Christmas partyUpon realizing that sacrificing his soul has saved his community from being ravaged by Mr. Potter, George rushes home, to discover that those who had seemed to take him for granted do actually care, and have rapidly come together to help him in his time of crisis. He appears to decide that the sacrifice is worth it, and that he can go on with both his life and the career that is crushing him. Things can go on as they had, at least for a while, or until the next crisis hits.

But what happens when the next crisis hits? Unless he does something significantly different, he will be once again hating the building society, hating his career, feeling unappreciated by his community, and resentful of his family. Everything that he has just been through will have been for nothing more than a very brief feeling of good will, and he will find himself back at that bridge. Perhaps it is still a wonderful life, but for George Bailey at least, it’s clearly a terrible career.

It's a Wonderful Life end title


One Response to “Is it Really Such a Wonderful Life?”

  1. “Wonderful” depends on your attitude. Do you have warm accomodations? Are you reasonably healthy? Can you pay your bills? Do you have friends?

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