“Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.” –Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class, from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Oh, how I LOVE this movie – a classic in every sense of the word, grounded in what I consider quintessential American values. I really don’t think you can watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and not relate to the film’s hero, George Bailey, as he struggles not only to provide for his family, but also for his town – Bedford Falls, NY – while standing up in his own small yet larger-than-life way for truth, justice, and above all, fairness.
At its heart, this movie – directed by Frank Capra and released in 1946 – is all about how the little things we do in our lives, things that we don’t really give much thought about, end up having huge repercussions down the road – and I’m talking about GOOD repercussions here. That’s brought home to George Bailey – played by one of the greatest actors of all time, Jimmy Stewart – by Angel Clarence Odbody (winningly portrayed by Henry Travers), who shows George what the world would be like if George never existed.
It’s powerful stuff. We watch Bailey stumble through his town, now reborn as some low-rent Las Vegas dubbed “Pottersville” (named after the richest man in town and George’s nemesis, Henry F. Potter -- played by Lionel Barrymore), becoming ever more horrified by what he sees – friends, neighbors, even his mother, subtly twisted into darker, more cynical versions of themselves due to his absence from the world.
Clarence doesn’t stop there, further detailing how far a single person’s actions can reach. For example, George’s brother Harry – saved in childhood by big brother George after falling though the ice when they were kids – grew up to be a war hero; a fighter pilot ace that shoots down a Japanese kamikaze before it hits a packed troop ship. Those thousands of soldiers, though, are dead in George’s new reality – since he was never there to pluck Harry from the icy pond water, Harry could never be there to stop the suicide pilot.
It’s the business ethics, though, that really give the film its moral heft – shown as George and Potter battle against one another time and time again; the former focused on building better lives for his neighbors, the other solely out to make money.
[The classic confrontation in the movie between George and Potter starts about minute three or four into this clip – and it’s sobering to realize how much of their debate is more than applicable to our housing crisis of today.]
“You’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know,” George tells Potter. “But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that? Why – here, you’re all businessmen here. Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers?”
George takes on the same mantle when dealing with a breakdown in the financial system, interrupting his honeymoon to save the institution his father created – and probably the town as well – in the clip below.
Interestingly enough, “It’s a Wonderful Life” – loosely based on the story “The Greatest Gift” by Phillip Van Doren Stern – pretty much flopped when it debuted in 1946. Costing about $3 million to make, the film didn’t even come close to reaching its break-even point (roughly double the production costs, around $6.3 million) during its initial release – putting a huge dent in Capra’s reputation, much less his career. Yet it’s gone on to become a cable television staple during the holidays, recouping its costs (and then some!) in the over 50 years since first being shown on the big screen.
It’s also interesting that this is the first film Jimmy Stewart made after his military service in World War II – which included flying as a command pilot in B-24 Liberator on numerous missions deep into Nazi-occupied Europe; missions that went uncounted on Stewart’s orders. In 1944, he twice received the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in combat and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, along with the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
Yet here he was, playing very much a non-action hero on the big screen; a guy whose brother gets all the glory, while he remains at home classified as a dreaded “4-F” due to hearing loss. If you ask me, Stewart – who made it a sharp point with Hollywood that he would NOT be exploiting his war record in the movies – intrinsically understood what the George Bailey character stood for; what Bailey represented in terms of the American values Stewart risked his own life countless times over the flak-riddled skies of Europe to protect.
[The movie trailer for “It’s a Wonderful Life” didn’t do the film justice, making it seem more light hearted and romantic than it really was.]
It’s strange, too, how little respect this film gets now. In 2007, some wag wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post dismissing “It’s a Wonderful Life” as corny garbage – pointing out in all-too-snarky fashion that glitzy “Pottersville” sure looked like a more “interesting” place to live than “boring” Bedford Falls.
(Yeah right. YOU go live in a neighborhood packed with bars, flophouses, and strip clubs and see how YOU like it. Sounds fun on paper until you live there 24/7 with your kids.)
It should be noted, though, that this movie is now recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made – ranked number one on their list of the most inspirational American films of all time. It’s nice to know, too, that Frank Capra himself (who suffered from vicious migraine headaches for most of his adult life) lived long enough to see his one-time flop reach such a high pinnacle of enduring success.
“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud … but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
He also said he intended his movie to recognize “the individual’s belief in himself,” making it to combat what he called “a modern trend toward atheism.” Heavy stuff for a Christmas film, but appropriate nonetheless.
And on that note, my friends, a very “Merry Christmas” to all of you – and to all of you, a good night.