My earliest memory of the film, It’s a Wonderful Life, probably dates to 1958, when I was a first grader. I particularly remember the starlit scene toward the beginning where God and Joseph begin their discussion of how to answer prayers seeking help for George Bailey, who has reached a critical point in his life on a Christmas Eve.
I suspect I have watched the struggles of George Bailey in his small-city home of Bedford Falls, New York, at least 25 times. It is a Christmas Eve tradition in our home. Each year, I find something new in the iconic film that celebrates the often difficult life of a man whose dreams are thwarted by the demands of everyday community life and family relationships.
The first thing I love about It’s a Wonderful Life is its sweep of history across a small city in the eastern United States from the early 1900s through the end of World War II, a time that encompasses two major wars and the Great Depression. This is my favorite historic period, rife with economic, social, and political struggles and triumphs. It was truly a time of nation building that shaped who and what we are today.
The film’s plot line of a small family-run building and loan association pitted against a hardened, and, as it turns out, criminal banker who will do anything to win—even pushing a competitor toward despair and possibly suicide by stealing money—plays out a conflict of the times on a personal, community, and social class level. The banker represents the dark side of a competitive, individualistic economy that was increasingly tilted toward concentrating wealth into the hands of fewer people, even in the community.
The second thing I love about It’s a Wonderful Life is the fantasy of allowing a despairing man see what his home, family, and community might have been like if he had not been there to struggle against the injustices that permeate his small city.
Sadly, some racial overtones mar the alternative, vice-ridden town that emerges without George Bailey. But the moral and economic message is clear: A dominating life of one person dedicated solely to acquiring money is the root of all evil that touches everyone. The selfish power that accompanies having too much money corrupts the community’s fabric. The entertainment might be lively, and even risqué, but the working people are much worse off in the alternate world.
In the life George Bailey wants to escape, he is troubled. Even so, he does good things. Except for this Christmas Eve crisis triggered by missing funds from the building and loan that have fallen into the hands of the banker—the worst moment of George’s struggles so far—he does understand and can find a bittersweet satisfaction in family, friends, and life’s work. He provides the city’s working people with a financial alternative to the bank that does not allow them, with their limited incomes, to buy their own homes in their small community.
It is difficult for George to see beyond his own unfulfilled dreams of traveling the world and building significant things. Wrapped in the troubles of day-to-day moments, he cannot fully appreciate the fruits of his efforts. He dislikes, and at times detests the work that has been thrust on him by the premature death of his harassed father, a founder of the building and loan. But George is bound by kinship and his own ethic to counterbalance the banker’s greed, no matter what the personal cost.
Clarence, the kindly, but seemingly bumbling guardian angel sent from heaven, helps George find his way through the deep despair that emerges from years of frustration and anger at keeping the building and loan alive to honor his father’s memory and to help his fellow community members. The trick of seeing an alternative—one that harms so many people, his friends in the other world—undermines George’s individualistic need for travel and building large things.
What emerges for George is a sense of self worth and an empathetic connectedness to his family and place, the greater good. His life’s work does matter. He has made life in the community better. The important thing is that George is rich in friends, according to the simple inscription in a volume of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that Clarence leaves for George as a reminder of his heavenly intervention.
December 25, 2016, marks the 70th anniversary of the release of It’s a Wonderful Life. This film is far more than a charming, nostalgic, and magical look at a different time in small-city America. As a member of the struggling, small-business middle class, George Bailey stands out as a different kind of “common man,” a theme so richly explored in director Frank Capra’s films.
The intersection of an individual trying to do the right thing for the community, denying his life goals for the common good, and engaging in a class struggle in a competitive economy to protect the interests of the community’s working people represent the conflicts, opportunities, and choices all of us face in life, more especially, perhaps if we have dedicated ourselves to community building in one way or another.
It’s a Wonderful Life was not well received originally, but has grown to become one of the most loved Christmas films. An individual’s unfolding acceptance of suffering and joy in his community and in his life ring true has overcome accusations that the film was a communist tool.
At its heart, George Bailey’s wonderful life is the essence of learning to give and receive, of learning to be an individual who can fully share his gifts with others while graciously accepting the gratitude, love, and respect of his fellow citizens and friends.
Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is the author of a newly released fantasy book, Memories of Santa Claus.