It is a classic that most Americans turn to, each Christmas season. The story of the irreplaceable value of the life of a man and the impact on the lives of countless others. Yet, it seems that the real miracle that is revealed in the film goes often overlooked.
When I was younger, I dreaded being forced to sit and watch this black and white film. Perhaps it was because I had yet to experience life on my own, or the chasm that one experiences when facing insurmountable disappointment? In any case, this Advent I revisited the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and the interior pondering as a result has not yet ceased. As a Veteran, I recognize this story too often, and unfortunately this year have witnessed more than a few of my brothers end it, prematurely. As a single woman, I admit to the overwhelming anxiety of facing the chasm, alone. It is a rare thing for an angel to reveal the value of a life, but perhaps this revisiting has renewed the hope in a life of future wonder?
The life of George Bailey is clearly a one of “great capacity to love” with a sound sense of Justice. Yet the struggle to do justice with love, accepting the consequences both may bring is so profound that, I believe, it deserves more contemplation than what most are willing to give. Throughout the film, we see George act outwardly for the good of others. I found it captivating how Frank Capra was able to produce—so naturally—the inner turmoil of this man. As a child, George seeks the advice of his father in a difficult situation, but quickly forgets himself to stand up to Mr. Potter’s diatribes. In this instance, we see the radical change of a boy to a young man, one unwilling to compromise in the face of injustice. In that moment, George seems to—almost naturally—forget himself. (You see this type of reaction, as well, when he jumped into the icy waters to save his brother, at the cost of his hearing.) Here, I wish to pause and make a point. Throughout the film, every time George does an act of heroic love or Justice, it seems he is repaid with suffering. This happens, clearly, when we see him return to the pharmacy, only to be beaten by Mr. Gower, his employer. I was nearly in tears when he shrinks back, after telling the pharmacist that he had mistakenly filled pills with poison—“don’t hurt my sore ear again!” It’s as if George is formed (and we with him), in this act, to expect suffering as the result of good. I struggle with this, myself. I know others do, as well. This was a lesson, a wound if you will, that would reoccur again and almost cost George his life—namely after being punched in a bar on Christmas Eve.
Let us return to the topic of George Bailey’s formation. Before the incident at the pharmacy, we are introduced to the revelation that George the young boy had big dreams for the future. “I wish I had a million dollars—hot dog!” He speaks of wanting to become an explorer, a builder-- to travel the world. These dreams begin to be realized as we are once more introduced to George as a young man—college bound, and ready to take on the world. We witness his family encouraging him, along with his friends, until the viewer takes part in a dinner conversation between George and his father. One recognizes the worried-worn stress of the older man, as he inquires to whether or not George would be willing to return, to carry on a legacy he built. It is here we begin to see the makings of the internal struggle. George replies to his father, “This business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe . . . I'd go crazy. I want to do something big and something important. I wish I felt . . . But I've been hoarding pennies like a miser in order to . . . Most of my friends have already finished college. I just feel like if I don't get away, I'd bust.” Justified or not, George focuses on self—on what he plans to do with his life. A point that will be reiterated throughout this article—the isolating struggle of looking internally into the chasm of unrealized hope and looking outside oneself is a struggle each man must face. Like George Bailey, later on, that struggle may find many alone and in despair this Christmas.
Here, however, we come to meet Mary. Before George’s father dies—and he ends up choosing justice over self—George-without-a-care-in-the-world falls easily for simply beautiful Mary. She, after all, has big dreams too. They find in one another, humor, common purpose, recognition and affirmation—perfectly natural kindred spirits. When George faces the loss of his father, however, all thoughts of Mary are replaced with thoughts of obligation. Thankless work overtakes his life for four years, as he sends his brother to school after reluctantly accepting his father’s place to keep his legacy alive.
When we later see George’s reaction to his brother’s good fortune of marriage and a new job offer, we see something of him die. The stinging death of what he had been promised, and the realization of continuing an empty life in thankless work turns him discouraged and bitter. He tries to hide his disappointment from his brother, his brother’s wife, his mother-- but we see the major internal struggle brewing. Isolated to his internal thoughts, the viewer stands with him on the edge that great chasm of despair, for the first time. Before he finds himself with Mary, George tries to connect with another—anyone other than she-- trying desperately to find what he knows he can only find in Mary. He is left wanting. Violet, no matter her charms, cannot comprehend or complete him. How many, today, do the same? When faced with the difficulties of life, so many choose anything or anyone other than what is truly good for them. We choose the lesser rather than what will make us truly whole, and often times out of irrational fear.
George is frustrated, disappointed and discouraged. Worst of all, George is intimidated by the woman he actually desires. Mary had just returned from college, she had interest from a friend who was likewise educated and very prosperous. What could he give this woman? It seems that Mary reminds George of everything he was not, and this is compounded when Mary expresses the choice to return to Bedford Falls rather than stay in New York City. Why would she not take the opportunity to run? She had been given the opportunity, and he envied her. Mary’s choice to return, and her attentiveness to him embodied a stability that George needed, but he wasn’t willing to accept what seemed the death of his aspirations. He didn’t recognize Mary’s answer to his “great capacity to love” was her acceptance and return of it. All George seemed to see in this “chance of a lifetime” was the sacrifice, and he feared he had nothing left to give. Again, that early wound surfaces—doing good (his sacrifice for his brother or fulfilling his desire for Mary) will result in suffering. “Now you listen to me! I don't want any plastics! I don't want any ground floors, and I don't want to get married –– ever –– to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do!”
Later, as we see the couple married and headed to their honeymoon. Stopping to answer the run on the bank, we recognize George’s Justice once again. George tries to assuage the crowd by sheer force of reason and will, but it is Mary who completes the act by offering up their own money to tide them over. Mary completes George’s selflessness, and is so natural in doing this that George forgets himself (and her) for a time. As George does justice to uphold his father’s legacy, Mary responds to him with love. She slips away unnoticed to the place of their first shared memories, and scrapes to makes sure her new husband is welcomed, despite their poverty, to a warm and cheerful home. We see, in his reaction, that George realizes his love has found a complete home in Mary.
During the rest of the film, to the lead-up of the miracle, we see bits and pieces of George’s internal struggle. When helping his friend, Martini, move his children out of Potter’s Field we see George and Mary immersed in the shared joy of doing good. It is only when George sees his wealthy friend from New York, Sam Wainwright, that George Bailey becomes distracted with himself. Mary, however, is right there beside him, and he seems to be able to brush off the anxiety of his lacking with her silent affirmation. Later, George is offered a chance to sell out and work for Mr. Potter. Imagine if Potter had offered this chance to him earlier on, when his brother returned with his bride? In that moment of darkness, without Mary by his side, George would have likely had taken it. Mary, throughout the film, is the reminder of something bigger—of someone who sees George Bailey entirely, loves him and encourages him, and completes his lacking. George knows he must, in justice, reject Potter due to his suspect motives--another sacrifice, and George Bailey’s internal struggle is renewed. He returns home late, but Mary is still up. This is a very important scene, because George chooses not to continue the internal and isolated struggle, alone. He lets Mary in. “Mary Hatch, why in the world did you ever marry a guy like me?” Mary replies, “To keep from being an old maid.” “You could have married Sam Wainwright or anybody else in town”. The wound emerges—and George, like that little boy in the pharmacy, seems to brace for hurt. Instead, Mary responds with more than just a gift of affirmation. She responds with the only result of a “great capacity to love”, “ I didn't want to marry anybody else in town. I want my baby to look like you.” George immediate forgets himself, and in the joy of their new child, they find a renewed reason to give of themselves.
Finally, in the film, we see George the day of his miracle. He is celebrating his brother’s heroism in that authentic way that only those who lived lives practiced in wishing good for the other, would do. George is living joyously in the life that he built, and so we see it in the reaction of those who meet him on the street and later, in the innocence of his children. As the viewer descends into the darkness George faces with his uncle’s misplacement of the bank’s money, we see him once again isolate himself in anxiety. He tries to fix this crisis, himself, instead of going to Mary. His rage at his uncle later turns to despair. When he returns home, embittered and suffering, he refuses to share his burden with his wife. Mary knows something is desperately wrong, but tries to respect him until he erupts at his children. Maternally fierce, Mary defends them from what she knows could be lasting wounds of their own, and George recognizes this. His reaction was one of fear—he had hurt that which he loved most.
One should ask why this entire scene took place—why is it that he not share his sorrow with his wife, but George is facing what he sees as an insurmountable failure. Where before, he found solace, it seems that George now sees himself hurting others. George’s justice and his great capacity to love has now been dealt a fatal blow—what good he has done, with bankruptcy and failure and jail looming, will cause his loved ones to suffer. This is revealed as he states, angrily, that he regretted having so many children, or spent years investing in a home that would likely be taken from them. Desperate, and afraid to confide in a wife he had just wounded, he turns to the only person able to stop this all from happening. Mr. Potter revels in George’s failure, dealing the final blow to George Bailey: “Look at you. You used to be so cocky! You were going to go out and conquer the world! What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No securities –– no stocks –– no bonds –– nothing but a miserable little five-hundred-dollar equity in a life insurance policy. You're worth more dead than alive.” Confirming what he’s been struggling internally with, George Bailey stares into the abyss.
A desperate man, he clings to a last and fainting hope—the intervention of God. Why George hasn’t been “much of a praying man” could likely be answered by the wounds he’s been dealt throughout his life, until this moment. To rely on God would make him vulnerable to things outside his control. The good that he had already done often had gone unrecognized, or he’d receive a blow for it in disappointment, pain and sacrifice. Why add God in the mix of all this? George expected rejection. Clinging to this last hope, however and despite his pain, the desperate man prays. “God . . . God . . . Dear Father in Heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.” Shortly after this, George is punched in the face by a man whose wife he had insulted. His reaction was what one would expect. “That’s what I get for praying”.
George is on the bridge, and about to take his own life. Potter’s words echo in his mind, being worth more dead than alive. His family, although broken hearted, would be safe. They would survive it. They’d have the financial security he failed to give them. He’d not have to witness them suffer for his failure. I pause here, as a miracle is sent by God…but one that rarely occurs. I wonder at that. Could it be that so many prayed for George? Could it be the merit he gained for his love and love of Justice? This is never truly explained—and I believe this is one reason for George Bailey’s disbelief in it.
What is it that brings George to realize the value of his life? As he wanders about his town, even though he is effected by the lack of recognition of his friends and family—and even the revelation of the death of his younger brother, this isn’t what shakes him. George Bailey asks his angel where his wife was. He needed Mary, his rock—his better half and his soul mate, to ground him. With Mary, George knew he could overcome all the strangeness he was enduring. When Mary doesn’t recognize him, George realizes the true miracle he had in his life—the support and love of his wife. It is only at the end that you really see how much impact she had. Mary, as she had done on their honeymoon, reacted to George’s needs. Like she did, when the Banking and Loan was overrun, Mary acted and in such a way that she ensured those who loved George knew he needed help, and all responded.
This was the real miracle of the film—not just that George’s life was valuable of itself, but that George Baileys life been made ineffably more valuable by the bonds of Marriage, and the fruits thereof.