Here’s a lightly edited version of my seasonal post from last year.
Even though I watch this movie most years (I’m sure I’ve seen it at least 30 times), it’s not too late to bring a fresh sensibility to It’s A Wonderful Life. I may not know precisely how many times I’ve watched it, but I do know with certainty the one sequence in the movie that gets me every time.
When Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey character realizes what the world would have been like without him and begins to run home, I always take the involuntary deep breath. The waterworks are soon to come. My body relaxes, and the tears well up. It might be while George Bailey is still on the run or when the collected money begins to tumble out of the basket or when the people he’s helped over the years start walking through the door with more money, but at some point during this sequence, the hot tears will start to roll down my cheeks and my heart seems to swelling just like the Grinch, you know, in the animated classic. I feel so good…
Before I get all gooey on you, there is a qualification I want to make. I think my emotional response to the film at this critical juncture is intensified by my appreciation of the politics of the picture. Have you ever noticed that the film is a “Liberty Films” production and the company logo is an image of the Liberty Bell?
Director Frank Capra’s best known films are tales with populist themes that champion the cause of the little man against institutions and corporations and corrupt government officials. It’s A Wonderful Life is part of this tradition. When Capra is thinking about liberty, who’s he thinking about? Certainly not mean old Mr. Potter, the greedy face of business interests, a man who wants to take over the town. Capra casts the iconic figure of Jimmy Stewart, a real-life war hero and conflicted everyman.
It is a flawless performance. We see George Bailey’s broad range of emotions cross Stewart’s face with a startling clarity. George Bailey may be conflicted, but his essential nature is steadfast and true. He wants to travel. He wants to go to college. He craves adventure. But he is needed in his hometown Bedford Falls.
In the end, George Bailey answers the call—whether the call is from God or his neighbors matters less than that Bailey hears it and answers it. He puts others before self and changes the world around him. When George Bailey reaches the end of his rope because of Potter’s malicious attempt to destroy the Bailey Family Savings and Loan that has helped working class folks in town for generations, our everyman hero despairs and thinks for a short time that the world would have been better off without him. That’s when an unlikely angel arrives on the scene to show George Bailey what his town would be like if no one had been there to answer the call and combat the greed and selfishness represented by Mr. Potter.
George Bailey has touched a lot of lives…and has saved more than a few. Still, he wonders about the value of his life before learning that it is wonderful. And why is that? Is it wonderful because he made a lot of money? No. Is it wonderful because he traveled the world? No. It’s because he did the right thing in the ways that he could and made a profound difference in the lives of others over time. He valued family and friends and liberty for all above the external trappings of success, especially the accumulation of personal wealth.
His is a wonderful life because George Bailey listened for the call and responded to the needs of his world. It’s A Wonderful Life is regarded as a Christmas story, but its message is important every day of the year.