I truly love Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). It is a fable of lost innocence, of love lost and found, and of family being essential to humankind’s resilience and stability. Despite having a great story, a fine cast, and a gifted director, there has always been one thing that has troubled me about the film. I feel the deck is stacked against George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from the start. The accumulating and unrelenting responsibility to friends and family so overwhelms George, even from the time he is a little boy, that he never has a chance to prove himself beyond the confines of Bedford Falls.
If we examine the plot of the story, it is all predicated on the irrefutable fact that George Bailey is a good guy. Despite being as Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore who out Scrooges Ebenezer in this role) puts it, “the smartest one of the lot,” George has not been able to escape his hometown. Why? Because every time he has a chance, something comes along that prevents him from taking the road less traveled by. It becomes exasperating at times as we see George’s opportunities evaporate.
George’s father Peter (Samuel S. Hinds) has established the Bailey Building and Loan in an honest effort to help people in the town. His nemesis is Potter, who tries to take over as much of the town as possible (with the Building and Loan keeping a portion of it from his greedy grasp). This combative relationship will eventually be transferred to George, who takes over the company after his father’s death.
Because of Potter’s drive to “chloroform” the Building and Loan, George loses the chance to take a trip to Europe and go to college (only by staying and taking his father’s place will the company endure). George’s trials and tribulations never end after this; he is always coming to someone’s rescue at his own expense. His brother Harry returns from college (with bride in tow); he is unable to take George’s place at work so that George can go to college. The war comes and George doesn’t even get out of town for that; his bad ear makes him ineligible for combat.
We cannot talk about the stacked deck without discussing Mary Hatch (a stunningly beautiful Donna Reed). The sister of George’s friend Marty, Mary has always had a crush on George, who has never noticed her until a high school graduation dance when she seems to have grown overnight from the pesty little girl he remembers into a lovely young woman. Mary, despite all her beauty and charm, is the coup de grace for George’s plans. Perhaps if he never meets Mary, George will be able to escape, but Mary is the prettiest ball and chain anyone can ever imagine. Mary manages to keep George in Bedford Falls because he loves her and wants her to be happy.
George has two real opportunities for freedom during the course of the film. One is when Mr. Potter offers him a job at $20,000 a year for three years (a far cry from his yearly salary of $2,340) that includes perks such a business trips to New York and Europe. One can argue that George should have taken this job despite the repugnance he feels while shaking the old man’s hand. As Potter’s head manager, maybe George could have altered some of Potter’s nefarious plans. He certainly could have done more than he does by remaining the head of the struggling Building and Loan.
George refuses Potter’s job offer and continues working on his arduous path until Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses eight thousand dollars on Christmas Eve morning. George finally reaches his limit, exploding in rage at his uncle and then his wife and children. He runs off into the cold night with only an insurance policy in his pocket. He even goes on bended knee to Potter, hoping desperately for a loan of some kind. When Potter tells him that, based on the insurance policy, he is worth more dead than alive, George decides to end his life by jumping off a bridge in order for his family to collect the money and pay off Uncle Billy’s debt.
Now, all this time the story has been told by angels who are watching from on high. They send down Angel Second Class Clarence (Henry Travers) to stop George and convince him that his life has merit. Clarence throws himself from the bridge and, ever the do-gooder, George jumps into the icy river to save Clarence.
When Clarence explains that he has been sent to stop George from killing himself, George still doesn’t accept that his life has been wonderful, thus setting up George’s second opportunity for escape. Clarence, with the help of the angels, shows George what life would have been like if he never lived. George and Clarence proceed to meet all the characters we’ve already come to know, but George is a stranger to them all (and some of them have experienced a change for the worse). He is upset to learn that because of his absence his brother Harry dies, his mother is destitute, his town has literally become a Potter’s field, but what especially troubles him is that Mary is “an old maid” who doesn’t recognize him.
Because of the deck stacked against him, even when George is completely free in this alternate life, he cannot escape. All the things that have ever constricted him are taken away: Building and Loan, his family, his friends, and his wife and kids. George has the chance many of us would wish for, but he is unable to embrace this opportunity for, in essence, George doesn’t exist even for himself without the affirmation he finds necessary from the other people in his life, and his happiness is inextricably linked to the happiness and well-being of others.
George does exactly what we expect him to do: he renounces this new worry free existence and begs to return to his old life, with all its various baggage and constrictions waiting for him. George doesn’t care that the deck has been stacked against him; in fact, George is such a fine and decent person that he willingly takes on all that trouble in order to be with those he knows and loves again. Quite magically, when he returns to his old life those people for whom he has sacrificed everything come to his rescue and save him from financial ruin, and possible jail time, with donations of money big and small.
The last few moments of the film are usually so life affirming and emotional, that despite my problem with the stacked deck, I still feel the surge and power of love that emanate from the screen. In the end I think George Bailey has found a different kind of freedom: one that does not have to do with planes, trains, and college campuses. George’s freedom depends on his ability to help other people; by loving his family, by supporting his friends, George becomes truly free.
So, when George finds a copy of Tom Sawyer left by Clarence in the barrel of money collected by all his friends and family, the inscription reaffirms all George has ever believed in: Remember, no man is a failure who has friends. George reads this right after Harry makes a toast to him, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town!” At this moment, everyone in the cast sings “Auld Lang Syne,” and it still gets to me. I understand why George does what he does and would do it all over again. George Bailey indeed has quite a life, and despite the stacked deck, a wonderful one to be sure.