One of my dearest Christmas memories of late was the year my friend Steve set up a screen in his living room and rolled out an old projector to show me an original film version of, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Even though I have practically every line memorized, I never get tired of it, and no Christmas is complete without it. It joins the traditions of Mom’s old Christmas angel ornaments and the cookie bars she called “Hello Dollys”, made with caramel chips and coconut.
“Say, Brainless, don’t you know where coconuts come from?”
This was the black-and-white, flickering version, on film so old that it had been carefully cleaned and rolled by hand, stored safely in the University of Michigan archives. Steve is a professor, teaching film at the College for Creative Studies, and has been a friend for decades, long enough to know what kind of gift would resonate with me.
Most everyone knows the story of George Bailey who meets Clarence the angel and is thus convinced that his life has been worth living.
But for me, the story is about personal sacrifice; about an unsung hero who gives up his dreams – or what he thinks are his dreams – to do the right thing.
Not many folks realize that the film itself didn’t become popular until long after it originally screened in 1946. According to an article in Mental Floss, It’s a Wonderful Life started out as a Christmas card. It was based on a short story, “The Greatest Gift”, which Philip Van Doren Stern wrote in 1939 and then circulated in 1945.
RKO Pictures purchased the rights for $10,000 and slated Cary Grant to play George Bailey. The project stalled and then Frank Capra took it over. He immediately cast Jimmy Stewart as the lead.
“It still smells like pine needles around here!”
One of the greatest things about the movie is the number of subplots. Young George’s bravery in the face of his abusive employer, the grief-stricken druggist Mr. Gower. George and Mary’s love story. Uncle Billy’s vacant-skulled bungling. Peter Bailey’s sacrifice for his townspeople. Harry Bailey’s secret wedding and rise to military heroism.
And of course, the angry, eternally bitter villain, Mr. Potter.
“That Bailey family’s been a boil on my neck long enough!”
Potter, an icon whose blatant narcissism erases all sense of empathy that may have been stirred by his wheelchair, is also a notorious racist. He accuses George of, “Playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic eaters.”
The many facets in the story of George Bailey are due to the fact that there were at least a half dozen writers working on the script. Capra, Stewart, and leading lady Donna Reed all cited the film as their favorite. It bombed at the box office, putting Capra over $500,000 in the hole.
“To Momma Dollar and Papa Dollar, and if you want the old Building and Loan to stay in business, you better start having a family real soon!”
And family is the crux of George’s problems. He’s got pressure from his father to stick around and keep the business running. Brother Harry is supposed to take over for him, but he comes back from college wed to a popcorn-munching blonde, with an eye on her dad’s business, a glass factory in Buffalo. Goodbye, Bedford Falls. Meanwhile, George’s mother pressures him to hook up with a local girl. And Uncle Billy is a mess. He should have never been put in charge of that $8000.
“I can’t think anymore, George, it hurts!”
In the end, it’s the community who saves George: the gratitude for his years of devoted service.
It took the visit from Clarence to give George a glimpse of the enormity of his impact on those around him. But one can’t help but think, if George had just looked around a little more, he would have noticed his world’s love for him, its need for him. This is never more apparent than in the barroom scene where Nick asks him if he needs a ride home, and then Martini and others rally when George is socked in the jaw by Mr. Walsh.
“You hit my best friend!”
So, the beauty of the film’s message, which rings true more than ever today, is that we don’t have to be in a position of political power, or atrocious wealth, to have an impact on society. Everything we do matters. Every kindness matters. No man is a failure who has friends!
Thanks to the reminder from George Bailey, we carry on. We are the ones who change the world. Even in the most troubling times, the Everyman prevails.