“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends,” wrote Clarence Oddbody to George Bailey at the end of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Clarence is an angel-in-training, and is waiting to earn his wings. To do this, he must save George Bailey from committing suicide. But wait . . . let’s pause for a moment and start from the beginning. It’s important to learn who George Bailey really is.
In order to save George’s life, Clarence is taken on a journey into George’s past and present, leading to the very dark, alternative future. We see George as a boy, saving his brother’s life, and then saving a child’s life from the confused and drunken hand of a grieving druggist. As George grows into a man (played by James Stewart), it’s clear he is respected and loved by the people of Bedford Falls. But George has bigger sights in mind.
He wants to travel the world after high school, and then study to become an architect (Stewart himself majored in architecture while at Princeton University). He wants to build skyscrapers and most of all, he wants to get out of that little town, which, he thinks, offers him nothing. He is resolute, yet there is always an event in Bedford Falls keeping him in town and away from the fantastical voyages he’s desiring.
The bane of George’s existence is Mr. Potter, a Scrooge-like character, who is only interested in profit, refusing to see the goodness or humanity in others. He is keenly aware that people hate him but, as he is proud to say, he hates them too, so it all evens out. Potter wants nothing more than to absorb Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, a family business once owned by George’s father and uncle. To save the business, George decides to stay and postpone his dreams of travel and architecture. This is the first event in a series of impediments for George.
Another event is the marriage of his brother, the one he had saved from drowning in frozen waters and who, because of his new wife and hero status after the war, chooses to embark on a different career path rather than staying on with the family business to give George his turn at college. There is a glimmer of light in his life: Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), a childhood friend whom he marries. Just as George and Mary are about to travel the world together, another event stops it: a run on the bank.
As years go by, George grows more and more bitter. The business is about to go bankrupt because his forgetful uncle misplaces $8,000. Thanks to Potter’s cruel remark about his life insurance policy, George realizes that he is materially worth more to his family dead than alive. The decision is made and George makes his way toward the bridge where he plans to make that final move that will end his precious life.
Enter Clarence. Eager to earn his wings, he jumps into water so that George will have no choice but to save him. George is still convinced that he needs to go through with his suicide but Clarence decides to show him what life would have been like for those he loves if George Bailey had never existed. It is a dark alternative reality. Bedford Falls is instead known as Pottersville, and it is a den of vice. People are depressed, mean, or both. It’s every man and woman for himself. George hadn’t realized how many lives he had touched throughout the years and what kind of contribution he made to the community, the value of which cannot be quantified in any practical way.
George’s true unselfish nature emerges and he knows that he must go back and live again. He feels nothing but gratitude for everyone and everything, especially Mary and his children. George Bailey is indeed a “wealthy” man, and not a forgotten man.
Things weren’t so neat and happy for the real James Stewart. At the time of filming, Stewart had just returned from the war, and was a changed man. In a 2017 documentary, “James Stewart/Robert Mitchum: The Two Faces of America,” one of Stewart’s daughters reflects on the darkness that overwhelmed her father after the war. Everyone knew that seeing so much death up close affected Stewart beyond words. In fact, Stewart never spoke of it. (He would face another tragedy later on: losing his son in the Vietnam War.)
It was difficult for Stewart to transition from his early roles as a young man with boyish looks to something wholly different. After experiencing the gritty reality of war, he even came to view his acting as frivolous, yet he knew that it was something he had to keep doing. Strangely, it was his war experience, which completely changed him that in some way prepared him for later roles. This is certainly true of his performance as George Bailey. Stewart couldn’t have possibly executed the role in the timeless and meaningful way he did, had it not been for his experience of war.
He couldn’t have prayed desperately at the bar, baring his soul to a God that he didn’t necessarily even believe existed. He couldn’t have shown the despair, anger, and confusion he exhibited in one of the most intense shots in the film: George’s realization that the dark reality of a world without him is really happening leads to a close-up in which Stewart stares right at the camera (and us) in utter desperation. He is a forgotten man. (We see similar maturity later in many of Stewart’s collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, especially in 1958’s “Vertigo.”)
He couldn’t have shown this nuance in his character and his recurring decision to remain in Bedford Falls. Was he ever really committed to leaving the town? Is he afraid of success, as Potter impatiently asks him? How does he define this success? Is he blaming others unjustly for his own, gradually formed, bitterness?
He couldn’t have shown his masculine desire in a scene with Donna Reed that sealed the deal on their marriage. As George and Mary listen to Sam Wainwright on the phone yap about some business deal, they move closer and closer to each other. Stewart’s nose keeps lightly touching Reed’s soft hair, as they move from restraint to submitting to each other in a matter of minutes. It’s a scene filled with desire, eros, and complete kindness at the same time. Yet even here, Stewart’s George shows complexity of the soul. He wants so badly to resist Mary, but she knows that he has already lassoed the moon for her. This is not an easy love but one stained by deep (if beautiful) sorrow.
Despite the depth that Capra got out of his actors, “It’s a Wonderful Life” proved to be another disappointment, especially for Stewart. It wasn’t necessarily a box office failure but it certainly wasn’t a success. It proved to be too dark for the audience, especially in its cinematography. Once the film transitions into the alternate future without George, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is far from a delightful Christmas movie. Its shadows evoke film noir. There are no heroes or even anti-heroes. There is only despair.
In his 2006 biography, Jimmy Stewart, Marc Eliot writes, “. . . for Jimmy, he was both disappointed and disillusioned by the film’s failure. He feared what one critic eventually wrote was true, that ‘it was when Stewart became too old to be fashionable he became too good to be appreciated.’” But success did find Stewart, starting with 1948 film noir, “Call Northside 777,” in which he showed a unique American masculinity. As Eliot notes, Stewart accomplished what the script was: “tough, no-nonsense, edgy . . . [and] gritty brusqueness.” These elements are already slowly developing in Stewart during the filming of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Is ambition a virtue? We all want success but do we really ever stop to define it? To really understand what it would mean for us? Pursuing excellence is a good trait, but that was not the purpose of Capra’s story. The question that arises in the film is whether we recognize the importance of the good. It’s about relationality between human beings, and most of all, recognizing the face of another. Just as he touched the lives of others, others have touched his life in meaningful—one might say “wonderful”—ways.
This sense of wonder, if truly understood, is a source of joy and gratitude. It is Capra’s understanding of gratitude that holds the film’s theme together. The dark vision of an alternate reality, in which George doesn’t exist, paradoxically shows George that he indeed is not a forgotten man.