In the final scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey opens a copy of “Tom Sawyer” that was found under his Christmas tree. Written on the back of the cover is the inscription: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” As a crowd of loved ones sings “Auld Lang Syne,” George squeezes his young daughter and declares “That’s right!” He turns to the sky, winks and repeats, “That’s right.”
For most of my life, Frank Capra’s (“It Happened One Night”) “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been synonymous with Christmas, my unequivocal favorite time of the year. It can’t be Dec. 25 until I’ve watched the movie one, two, sometimes three times, with a mug of hot chocolate in hand, surrounded by the balsam scents and white lights of my living room.
Yet for a movie so associated with Christmas, it depicts very little of it. The majority of the film takes us through the life of George Bailey (James Stewart, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), a selfless family man living in the quaint village of Bedford Falls. No matter how many times I’ve watched the film, I am astounded every time by just how much of it is dedicated to simply setting up George’s life. From a young boy to a grown man, you are shown how George has lived his entire life for the benefit of others. He jumps into icy water to save his little brother while they sled as children. He risks his job at a drug store as a teenager by not delivering pills he saw the distressed pharmacist accidentally fill with poison. He gives up his dream of going to college and traveling to take on the family building and loan business after his father dies.
Following this man through his life, it’s easy to become attached. Watching him experience love and pain, joy and despair, George becomes a living, breathing force jumping off the screen into real life. I know how the story starts and I know how it ends, but everytime I watch I feel myself praying for a happy ending, waiting for the moment that someone finally gives back.
But each time, nearing the end of the film, it seems that life has still not repaid George. As the film takes us into the present day, the Bailey Building and Loan business has been forced into thousands of dollars of debt. To pay off these debts with life insurance, George goes to a bridge on Christmas Eve to commit suicide. But somebody jumps before him, and George dives into the freezing river to save them. The man George rescued is Clarence — an angel, second class — and in order to earn his wings, Clarence must prove to George just how important his life has been for others.
The remainder of the movie shows how miserable everybody is in a world where George had never been born. His brother died in that icy water, the pharmacist went to jail and even Bedford Falls is not the same, now named after the avaricious banker that is trying to run George out of business.
For a movie entitled “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the majority of the film is quite dreary. Greed, suicide, war — these aren’t exactly the themes one would expect from a Christmas story. But that is what makes the story so real, so persistent. With every year I watch the film, with every new life experience, I understand George Bailey a little bit more. When I was a kid I didn’t know why George went to the bridge that night, but now I see. Misery doesn’t end when the holidays start, and even a life of selflessness can feel empty. Capra doesn’t sugar coat life they way the other candy colored Christmas movies do. The emotions from George Bailey and those who have come to love him are raw, breaking the surface of life’s unyielding struggles during a time of year they are most stifled.
Perhaps it’s that desperate need for catharsis that makes the end of the movie so moving. As George returns to the bridge and cries desperately for his life back, snow begins to fall and he races through town, hugging and waving at everyone in his way. He returns home to a parade of people whose lives he touched, waiting to give him money to pay off his debts. A bell chimes on the family Christmas tree and his daughter utters the famous line: “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, and angel gets his wings.”
The story is one of classic Christmas feel-good victories, and like its protagonist, the movie itself also has somewhat of a comeback story. Following its release in 1946, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a complete box office flop, to the point that it shuttered Frank Capra’s production company. Yet 30 years later, after someone forgot to file an updated copyright request, the movie became public domain and networks played it every day, every hour, during Christmastime.
Perhaps that’s the greatest allure of the movie: its timelessness. It’s been over 70 years since “It’s a Wonderful Life” was first released, but to this day, it gives family and friends occasion to squeeze together onto couches and under blankets to watch George Bailey’s story play out. Everybody wants to see themselves in George Bailey, in a world where nobody would be better off without their presence. Where everything one does somehow affects someone else which affects someone else, and so on. It’s a message even a toddler watching it for the first time in her grandparent’s basement can understand. Nobody’s life is worthless.
For 20 years I’ve been watching Frank Capra’s unlikely masterpiece in the lead up to Christmas. I don’t race my brother down the steps on Christmas morning anymore. My presents to family are bought with money from jobs rather than twisted together with construction paper and pipe cleaners. I’m too far away from home to help string up the lights, and there’s an empty seat at our Christmas table now.
The sad truth is that sometimes, it truly is a terrible life. There is pain, loss, helplessness. It is easy to look around and give up, to feel beaten by life. But the most important scenes in “It’s a Wonderful Life” aren’t the ones predicated on sacrifice and anger. They’re the silent promises to love someone until the day you die. The pocketing of petals to bring a young girl’s flower back to life. The quiet prayer muttered in a crowded bar. The decision to jump in to save someone else before you save yourself. Believing that even at the lowest point, there is hope.
As much as the world has changed since 1946, and as much as my life has changed since that first viewing, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has not gone away. I predict it never will. The human desire to feel needed transcends time and age. The six-year-old watching next to their grandmother may be inspired to reach out one more hand, to be kind to one more person. The grandmother may reflect on her many years, and be grateful for the good and the bad. Like the motto hanging in the Bailey office insists, “all you can take with you is that which you have given away.”