It’s a Wonderful Life: when defeat can be victory

On Christmas Eve Kimmie and I watched It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Frank Capra film that has now become a Christmas classic, for maybe the 7th time. As with all the best films, I found that I enjoyed it even more this time than the previous times. I’d like to take a look at why I find it so enjoyable.

(Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers galore, including the movie’s ending. Read on only if you have seen it.)

As with some other movies that I place in the highest category of quality, It’s a Wonderful Life had a lot of writers contributing to the screenplay. According to the Internet Movie Database, the screenplay credit went to Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Frank Capra, with “additional scenes” by Jo Swerling, from a story by Philip Van Doren Stern, and with further uncredited work by Michael Wilson. According to Wikipedia, Dorothy Parker was also one of the writers brought in.

The underlying property was a short story by Van Doren Stern called “The Greatest Gift”, which, when he was unable to publish it in 1939, he turned into a set of 200 Christmas cards which he mailed out. One of these came to the attention of a producer at RKO Pictures, and RKO bought the rights in order to develop the story into a vehicle for Cary Grant. Three scripts later, RKO didn’t like what they were seeing and unloaded the project with the three scripts to Frank Capra’s company Liberty Films for the original purchase price of $10,000. This was when Capra brought in his own crew of writers and, as far as I know, none of the original RKO writers has a credit on the show.

Despite the group effort that resulted in the screenplay, this movie has a strong, definite vision and shows clarity and unity of purpose at every step.

Using the idea of fictional modes laid out by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism, the story belongs partly to the mode he calls romance, meaning that it features characters (in this case angels) with powers and qualities beyond those of ordinary human beings, and partly to the high mimetic mode, meaning that its hero embodies qualities that are superior to our own. For George Bailey (James Stewart), the frustrated would-be globetrotter and adventurer whose efforts to escape the small town of Bedford Falls are repeatedly thwarted, is, unlike most of us, a man with the courage, vision, and integrity to prevent the last independent business in town, his father’s Bailey Savings & Loan, from falling into the clutches of the avaricious Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). It is a task that George does not seek and is reluctant to accept, but a sense of duty and responsibility keep him fighting against seemingly impossible odds.

Worse, it’s a fight that he does not win. On Christmas Eve 1945 he’s let down by his absent-minded Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), who manages to mislay $8,000 of the S&L’s cash while depositing it at the bank—cash which the sharp-eyed Mr. Potter grabs, not because he needs it or even wishes to steal it, but because he knows that its disappearance will be the ruin of the S&L and of his young enemy George Bailey. George goes on a desperate hunt for the cash, even humiliating himself before Mr. Potter to beg for an emergency loan to get the S&L through the crisis. When all that he can provide as collateral for the loan is a life-insurance policy with $500 of equity in it, Mr. Potter dismisses him with the remark, “You’re worth more dead than alive, George.”

This leads George to the conclusion that Potter is right: the world would be better off without him. George heads to a local bridge to jump off (I suppose forgetting that his life-insurance policy won’t pay out for suicide), and is there thwarted once again—this time by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who beats George to the punch by jumping off the bridge first and then screaming for help. Spurred by the same instinct to help that had him also save his younger brother Harry from drowning when they were kids, George dives in to rescue Clarence, and thus ushers in the unique and powerful third act of the movie, in which Clarence, like the spirits in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, conducts George on a tour of what Bedford Falls would look like if George had never been born.

George comes to see that he has made a huge difference to the people around him, some of whom, like his brother, would not even be alive had he not intervened to help them. He realizes that his agon with Potter is a triviality, and that the outcome of his cash crisis a matter of no importance in the big scheme. Without George Bailey, Bedford Falls would have fallen victim to complete ownership and domination by Mr. Potter—indeed, this alternative town is now called Pottersville—with the result that all its residents, including George’s current lovable friends and neighbors, are more callous and selfish. Horrified by this spectacle, culminating in a vision of the neurotic spinsterhood of his beloved wife Mary (Donna Reed), George pleads with Clarence to return his life as it was.

Clarence duly grants his wish, and in a mad rush of elation George sprints back into town, delighted to embrace the very same situation that a couple of hours earlier had brought him to the brink of suicide. As he runs by Potter’s office he calls out, intoxicated with joy, “I’m goin’ to jail! Isn’t it marvelous?”

But George, it turns out, is not going to jail. When he returns to Mary he finds out that word of his predicament has spread to his friends, who are much more numerous and benevolent than he had supposed, for they all arrive to bring what money they can to help bail out George Bailey—and it is only just now, as I type these words, that I see that his name, Bailey, is also bailee, “the person to whom personal property is bailed”, or “delivered in trust for a special purpose”. It can also mean, of course, simply one who is bailed out, as George is bailed out here and as he has bailed out others again and again in his life. The name George is that of St. George, who tamed the dragon that terrorized the community, in this case Mr. Potter.

The communal joy that overtakes the group is so strong that the officials who have come to arrest George tear up their warrant and join in singing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”. We know that Clarence has earned his wings, and are left in no possible doubt that it is, indeed, “a wonderful life”.

The symbolism of George’s name is a clue to the dimensions of meaning within the story, and they are many. But I’ll take up that topic in a future post. For now I’ll just say that I’ve given this move an “A”, which, up to 1968, I’ve only bestowed on 11 movies; and that I’ve rated it as 10 out of 10 on IMDb. In my opinion, movies don’t get better than this.

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