I came kind of late to the movie "It's a Wonderful Life." Instead, I endured the hackneyed tale that is "Miracle on 34th Street." The irony is that neither has a lot to do with Christmas. One is about some guy who couldn't possibly be real. The other is about Santa.
Many Christmas themed television episodes either borrow from the classic Dickens tale "A Christmas Carol" or the concept of what life would be like without you in "It's a Wonderful Life." It's an iconic concept, but it is also an amazing movie in its own right.
In short, an angel was dispatched to help George when he reached his greatest moment of despair. As a child, he saved his brother from drowning. He stopped a druggist from delivering a fatal prescription. He took over his family's bank and made it possible for people in the town to buy their own homes and businesses. He married the girl who waited for him for years and eventually had four children with her. His actions helped his brother Harry to become successful, his friend Sam to become rich and many to become upwardly mobile.
Through his uncle Billy's absent-mindedness, an $8,000 deposit was lost on the day a bank examiner showed up. In danger of arrest and financial ruin, George contemplated suicide. Then he met the angel Clarence. Clarence eventually showed him what life would be like had he never been born.
When George was never born, we learn
- Harry died in the ice that day, and his mother was left alone after his father's death. A number of soldiers died in that transport without Harry being a pilot in WWII.
- Mr. Gower, the druggust, spent 20 years in prison when a child was poisoned from his mistake.
- Bedford Falls is Pottersville now, filled with bars and all night clubs. An old friend,Violet, is being arrested.
- Ernie, the cab driver, lives at Potter's field and his wife left him.
- Uncle Billy is in an asylum.
- Mary, his wife, is an old maid librarian
In some ways, the title of the original story, "The Greatest Gift," was a better title. George has a pretty good life, but it's not about him. The implication of "It's a Wonderful Life" is that George Bailey is defined by the positive impact he has on others. What he actually got was the gift of knowing that he isn't better off having never been born, and neither is anyone else.
One question to ask is what would happen to George Bailey had he not made the decision to take over the Building and Loan? Delaying college was one thing. He was unable to pay for it until he saved up. The first decision that would change the course of his adult life was keeping the Building and Loan in business after his father died. George seemed to be a personable, bright man. He gave Sam Wainwright the plastics idea and stopped a run on the bank. Maybe George would have become a successful architect in New York.
Then again, his family may not have fared so well. Billy would drink himself into an early grave. Harry would support his mother until he was drafted. Not having his own education, he might end up in the infantry. Those men in the transport would still die. Pottersville would become a reality.
If we don't take the concept that everyone's life touches many others and see George Bailey as a superior man, we can think about him in terms of Ayn Rand. What would Rand make of George? He was s superior man, but he was something of a sap. Was Potter the greater man because he had more money? I would say no. First of all, Potter's one-dimensional avarice had a fatal flaw. Bailey's trust in his fellow man paid off. The Building and Loan was solvent and people were moving into homes and out of Potter's tenements. Plus, George had 4 children. Progeny always beats out one man's accumulation of wealth.
Is the movie a story of liberalism or conservatism? I would tend to say that there is little liberalism involved. The only villain is greed. Capitalism is praised. Sam is a successful businessman. Potter has to steal and cheat to continue. It's certainly not a message of socialism. No mention is made of FDR saving Bedford Falls. In fact, the only thing Roosevelt seemed to do for the town was send most of its young men to war. I'm conservative and I'm a fan of voluntary collectivism. It's just too bad the movie portrays it only working when one man sells houses for half their value. Then again, the Building and Loan probably would survive the recession of 2008 with that policy.
Still, George represents the everyman. The disturbing aspect of that is how much he is driven by guilt and anger. Potter is a small man, in his way. He doesn't have any interests outside of Bedford Falls. For no particular reason, he wants to turn the town into a den of profitable sin and vice. He has disdain for his fellow man. The poor deserve to be poor. George Bailey, in his opinion, deserves to be rich. Instead, he helps everyone else out to his detriment. He eventually comes to regard George Bailey as the enemy. George considered Potter an enemy since his father died. He blamed Potter and his constant desire to be the only bank in town. George stayed behind to not disappoint others. When that didn't work, he stayed to defeat Potter.
Potter ended up being a pretty one-note character in an era when FDR was the president for over a decade. He was described as both rich and mean. He got rich by being mean. In case that wasn't enough, Potter all but stole $8,000 when Billy left it in that paper. One can see why the Saturday Night Live writers thought of an alternate ending where Potter was found out and beaten to death by the citizens of Bedford Falls.
I see the movie as something of a love story. As much as George saves everyone else, Mary saves him. What happens to George is like a reverse of 2000's "The Family Man," where a bachelor sees what his life is like when he marries his sweetheart. If your're going to have a Christmas movie that's not about Christ, it might as well be about love.