(Here’s another thing I found from around 10 years ago. It’s a little long in the tooth and fairly obvious, but here it is.)
Child labor and abuse. Shattered dreams and an evil Republican cripple. Frustration, poverty, and an idiot uncle. A wife who wasn’t your first choice and a family you never really wanted. Drunk driving, bar fights, malfeasance, and suicide.
Not exactly the stuff family holiday classics are made of, yet all this is in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Life is often derided as a hokey and syrupy bit of Americana, yet compared to today’s movies, it’s surprisingly dark and realistic. Turn on any popular TV show or attend a commercially successful movie and you’ll find the same dominant theme: Achieve your dreams. You’ll be sorry if you don’t. That’s because the message of modern American society is that to be happy, you must do everything you can to achieve your dreams or you’ll end up a bitter, frustrated person full of regret. It’s a Wonderful Life flies in the face of that philosophy and presents a man who doesn’t get a single thing he wanted out of life, yet winds up the richest man in town.
We first see George as a youngster saving his kid brother from certain drowning and later as an older boy working for Mr. Gower in a drug store. In both instances, he’s saving the lives of others in spite of peril to himself. He braves freezing water to save his brother, loses hearing in one ear, and gets slapped upside the head by Mr. Gower when he refuses to deliver poison to a sick boy. Unlike the heroes of today who spring into action without a second thought, George always hesitates just before making a decision–an important distinction. He chooses to do what he does, and those choices involve helping others, even at his own expense. As a child, his decisions result in mere physical pain, but as an adult they will bring about terrible mental anguish.
In the same sequence involving the Gower Affair, George is introduced to his future opponent and thematic opposite, Mr. Potter. He’s the man who has everything and if given a choice, will choose what’s best for him over the welfare of others. What’s more, he’s rich! He’s the embodiment of today’s message, yet instead of being a happy, fulfilled man, he’s a lonely, bitter old miser with no friends.
When we next see George, he’s come of age and ready to see the world. George is shopping for a suitcase and goes on about how he wants a big steamer trunk that he can slap labels on for all the places he’s going to visit. The shopkeeper pulls out a large, empty suitcase for George to inspect and it turns out it’s from old Ear-Slapper himself, Mr. Gower.
These scenes are very busy, full of movement and energy. They convey the feelings of expectation and excitement that come with escaping the familiar and doing new things. In the dinner scene at home, someone’s always moving in and out of frame instead of the traditional portrait of a family eating a quiet meal together. The school dance scene follows, continuing the frenetic imagery of the drug store and family dinner scenes. George gets friendly with town hottie Violet, but a friend who wants George to give his kid sister Mary some company quickly pulls him away. Once again, George hesitates before finally deciding to do his friend a favor. After a brief introduction, he and Mary start doing the Charleston and take a dip in the pool thanks to the insidious shenanigans of Alfalfa.
The energy of the previous scenes dies down for purposes of exposition as George and Mary take their stroll past an old, broken-down house. Mary’s obviously taken with George and she reveals her dream of living in that house and raising a family, but George is too wrapped up in his own excitement at leaving town to notice. The scene shows George at his zenith, culminating in his boast to Mary of roping the moon and bringing it down to her. Little does George know that it is he who will be soon roped and brought back down to earth in just a few minutes, as he’s informed that his father has just had a heart attack.
Mr. Potter shows his nasty mug again, and he’s still the same greedy old SOB he always was. His selfish words irritate George to the point that even though he plans on leaving Bedford Falls for good within the next hour, he still makes an impassioned speech for saving the Building & Loan. It’s not that he really cares for the institution, but that he really hates Potter and recognizes that if Potter can get rid of the Building & Loan, he’ll own the whole damn town and they’ll all be the worse for it. His rant finished, George makes tracks for the railroad station only to be stopped by one of the board members who says that the Building & Loan will remain, but only if George stays on as Executive Secretary.
Capra is perfect in this moment. He lets the scene hang on George’s face as the realization sinks in. All the frenetic energy of the earlier scenes suddenly stops and the effect is devastating. George hangs his head slightly and makes the decision to stay in town. George offers himself some hope as he figures he’ll be able to leave once his younger brother gets back from college. He won’t be able to go to Europe, but at least he’ll get out of town eventually.
A few years go by, and once again, the energy of the train station scene corresponds with George’s expectations of getting out of town, since his brother’s coming home from college. Once his brother gets off that train, George is free to go to college and get on with his life. Harry gets off the train and George is happy. Harry’s unexpected wife gets off the train and George is happy. Harry’s wife tells George about the job her father’s offered Harry, and George is not so happy. Upon hearing the news, the scene comes to a dead stop as the camera pushes-in on George yet again. We can see the wheels start turning in George’s mind as he starts wrestling with the dilemma of fulfilling his own dreams against letting his brother have a good life of his own. That same evening, his mom pushes Mary on him, since she seems to know before George that he’s not going anywhere. She points him towards Mary’s house, but George goes the other way.
After briefly chatting-up the town bicycle, Violet, George eventually winds up at Mary’s house. He’s obviously irritated throughout the whole scene, since he knows that by settling down with Mary his dream will be completely and utterly dead. He makes a few empty protests before finally giving-in and accepting Mary. Game Over. Turn in your steamer trunk for a briefcase.
The rest of the film reinforces the notion of George being denied what he wants for the sake of helping someone else. His honeymoon is ruined by a bank scare that costs him his entire savings. He’s constantly going at it with Potter to keep the Building & Loan in operation and he’s helping the community to get better housing than what Potter offers, at the expense of a good house for himself and his family.
The film eventually reaches its crisis point when George’s idiot uncle loses $8,000 dollars and the Bank Examiner shows up (it appears that financial institutions were regulated in the past and financial officers could face some form of criminal punishment). Potter swears out a warrant for George’s arrest and Bailey realizes his number’s up. He barks at his family and heads out to the bar to get drunk.
This is where Capra’s decision to have George make his choices instead of being a mere victim of circumstance pays off. If George had been carried along by the whims of fate instead of being a willing participant in his life, the film wouldn’t work. George knows that his decisions have brought him to this point and he hates himself for it. He considers himself a failure because of those choices he’s made. All of his frustration at being denied what he wanted again and again finally boils to the surface when he considers jumping off the bridge and ending it all.
But it’s Clarence the Bumbling Angel who jumps in the water first, and George momentarily forgets his own problems to jump in and save the guy. Saved from the icy river, Clarence and George sit down for a heart to heart and George lets off the flippant remark about wishing he’d never been born.
What Clarence shows George is that had he not made all those “wrong” decisions, the entire town would have been worse off for it. Sure, he may have not been able to leave Bedford Falls and see the world, but at the same time he enriched the lives of everyone else, including his own, though he was too blinded by his own self-pity to see it. And that’s what makes this film superior to the “feel good” movies of today. People are encouraged to damn the world in pursuit of their dreams, lest they be unfulfilled and unsuccessful. But what of the rest of the world? In It’s a Wonderful Life, we’re shown the guy who supposedly has everything. Mr. Potter’s rich, he owns half the damn town, and he can get anything he wants. He’s also a bitter old man with no friends or family of his own. If Potter hadn’t existed, the world would have taken bare notice and would be no worse for having not known him, because he was only concerned about himself and the accumulation of material wealth.
The world was obviously worse off for not having George Bailey around, and though he never pursued his dreams, he did choose to help those around him. By elevating the lot of his fellow man, he made his world a better place. He may not have had the best house or a fancy car, and his kids may not have had the best clothes, but he had a family and friends who loved him. Harry’s not kidding when he calls his brother “the richest man in town,” because in every way that matters, he is.