This is spoiler heavy, if you have not seen It’s A Wonderful Life or know most of the plot I would not suggest reading this or listening to the below podcast until you do see the movie. However, if you don’t care about spoilers more power to you and read on!(check out their podcast on It’s A Wonderful Life here) so instead I am going to point out what I see as the obvious about this movie - It’s A Wonderful Life is a very dark film populated by a very dark central character in George Bailey.
You might be wracking your brain right now to argue with me about how wrong I am about It’s A Wonderful Life; what we celebrate and love the film for is the uplifting message that we take away from the film. However, until the end of the film George is a very selfish character and this trait is marked by periodic outbursts of depression and anger until he ultimately decides to commit suicide – that’s right – we get the ultimate message of this movie because George Bailey wants to die.
To understand the very natural human progression of George Bailey you have to start from the beginning. George Bailey wanted to go to college and see the world. He is stopped from doing this because first he needs money for college, then his father dies and he must take charge of the family business. When George finally thinks he is going to be able to shake the dust of Bedford Falls off his feet and let his brother Harry deal with the business Harry returns to Bedford Falls with a young wife in tow but soon George is married as well and thinks at least he’ll get to escape no matter how briefly on his honeymoon with his new wife Mary.
This is when George’s life completely changes and it becomes impossible for him to leave Bedford Falls. On the day he is married and as he is headed to start his honeymoon the stock market crashes and the depression hits. George and Mary use their honeymoon fund to save the business and some of the residents. Now George and Mary begin to have children and WWII hits. Unlike every other man his age George can’t fight in the war because he is dea fin his left ear – as such George stays and fights the “fight of Bedford Falls”.
But finally, finally George’s life beings to look up. Harry is a war hero. The business is almost turning a good profit. That is how you know George’s luck can’t hold. Sure enough the businesses deposit is lost by Uncle Billy as they are being audited and when it is discovered both he and Billy will become convicted felons. This is when George snaps –he does not want to pay for a crime he didn’t commit because of a life he didn’t want.
George is in a rage. He accosts Uncle Billy, he goes home and screams at his children and wife until he sees that they are afraid of him. That sets in the depression and George reacts like anyone might. George goes to the local bar and gets drunk only to end up being hit by another bar patron and on his way out of the bar crashing his car into a tree. This all finally leads up to his ultimate decision to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge.
This is not a uplifting character. George Bailey is not idealized or heroic in any fashion; even if his actions were good he wanted to be anywhere but here. He is a disappointed man who only comes to his final epiphany because someone has to prove to him that his life was not wasted; the man is so self involved that it takes an supernatural experience to show him how great he has life.
There are two reasons we remember George Bailey as the truly fabulous character he is – Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra. Stewart layers Bailey with warmth, humor, anger and disappointment in a way no actor of any other generation may ever be able to. We care about George Bailey because Stewart’s performance makes Bailey a character that is all too human, and as viewers you will empathize with something in George Bailey’s circumstances. In the same vein Capra take Bailey’s world and shapes it into one that is all too real – whether we are looking at Bedford Falls or Pottersville the worlds are so real that we can imagine living there ourselves. Capra layers his world with characters that mirror the people in our own lives and though the movie is supernatural in nature it is very real.
The thing to remember in the end is that George Bailey and It’s A Wonderful Life are so very real to us, so uplifting to us, because the character goes through such realistic situations; while you or I may never have the urge to throw ourselves off a bridge I can guarantee that more than once in life we have been faced with a situation in which we did the right thing, but it was very much not what we wanted to do and usually, however subtlety this situation changed our life just like it changed George Bailey’s. That very empathy that we feel between ourselves and George is the reason this film went from being a box office flop in 1946 to one of the most beloved movies of all time. We don’t like it when life disappoints us but over time if we try we will appreciate the changes and over time we have realized that It’s A Wonderful Life had something very important to say. It’s A Wonderful Life is a lot more than a “Christmas movie” it’s a movie about life.