Signs of 'Life': Wonderful lessons from the Capra masterpiece

We’ve all had those moments in December when we clicked through the channels and found It’s a Wonderful Life nearly everywhere. Yet it would be tragic if the past over-exposure of Frank Capra’s 1946 film fooled us into seeing it as anything less than a masterpiece. What’s more, the film offers a profound understanding of the Gospels.

Is George Bailey a saint? Not exactly. He might just be lucky or unlucky or human.

Anxious to leave bucolic Bedford Falls, George (Jimmy Stewart) tells his father, “I want to do something big, something important!” He doesn’t yet see how his father’s work fits that goal precisely. Then there’s Mr. Potter, as twisted as Eden’s serpent, brought to life by the Shakespearean-trained Lionel Barrymore. Good and evil are presented as “opposed but almost equal” forces through these two characters. Potter wants nothing but to see goodness fail.

When George’s father dies, Potter makes a motion at the first board meeting to dissolve Peter Bailey’s Building & Loan and turn its assets over to the receiver, which is the bank Potter owns. Capra liked to center his dramas on pivotal moments in a character’s life, and with an actor like Stewart, he had all he needed. As George rushes out the door, the chairman catches him to say that the board has just appointed George to replace his dad. No way, George says, “I’m leaving.” “But, George! They’ll vote with Potter otherwise!” Go to YouTube and watch the moment when Capra zooms in on George’s anguished face (35 minutes into the film).

Four years later, George is still running the business with his daffy Uncle Billy, when Harry, his talented kid brother, graduates from college. Harry, it turns out, has just married and his father-in-law has offered him a job. “I never said I’d take it,” Harry tells George. “You’ve been holding the bag here for four years, and I won’t let you down.” Look again at George’s face (at the 37-minute mark). See the change that comes over a determined mouth, how a smile emerges, eyes brighten and the body moves forward almost unintended. Capra has us watching human virtue in action. George urges his brother to take that job in Buffalo.

Back home at a party for Harry and Ruth, George’s mother urges him to call on Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), also just home from college. She has a crush on George, but it is only when her beau, Sam Wainwright, calls her from New York that a cloud of tension turns to steam; George and Mary end the scene in a passionate kiss. This is not the last time Sam will prompt George to see himself truly.

George and Mary wed on a gloomy day a few years after the great crash of 1929. As they announce to a cab driver their honeymoon plans, people run to the bank teller windows. The bank has locked its doors. So has the Building & Loan, where Uncle Billy is already drinking himself under the table. At day’s end, George and Mary have given away all they’d saved for a honeymoon, and Mary has arranged for them to spend the night in an abandoned house in Bedford Falls. She has decorated the walls with posters of the places abroad George has longed to see, but never will. If Mary and George are saints, they got that way through marriage.

George and Mary consistently turn negative situations into positive ones. They find their calling in the world, to help people find affordable homes. The Building & Loan does not simply lend money; George advocates for his customers and risks his own family’s financial security. We watch them help the local barkeep and his family move away from Potter’s Field, which is what the townspeople call Potter’s rented shacks. The name is biblical: Judas hanged himself in “potter’s field…a burying place for strangers” (Mt 27:3-8).

Potter’s Invitation

With Bailey-financed homes poking up all over, a fed-up Potter invites the now 28-year-old George for a chat. His attempt to lure George to the dark side almost works. The old man offers George a job managing his properties for $20,000 a year (about $300,000 today), with an opportunity to travel. George looks like a cat spying tuna until he remembers who he is. And who Potter is. For a split second George nearly lets down his guard.

George and Mary have four children. She transforms the old ghost house into a home; George, frustrated by Potter at every turn, returns from work exhausted most days. Then comes World War II. Everyone is off to fight the enemy, something George would dearly want to do, as well. But the deaf ear he acquired as a kid while saving Harry’s life in icy water, keeps him home. And Harry becomes a great war hero, shooting down 15 German planes and receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. Then comes the long, final day.

It is Christmas Eve when a bank examiner arrives at the office to review the books. Uncle Billy has misplaced the deposit, however, losing every cent the Building & Loan had. Facing scandal and ruin, George stops by the house. Mary has never seen her husband with this look of desperation. She ought to be scared—George has gone to Potter to beg him for the $8,000 he needs. But Potter, who found the lost deposit, almost chokes on his evil chortling at George’s misfortune. When Potter spits out, “You are worth more dead than alive!” George’s eyes light up (at 1 hr. 34 min.).

In Capra’s next turnkey moment, George contemplates ending his life. Alone at a bar he prays. Until this point, we have not heard George, a secular saint, pray. “Dear Father in heaven…if you’re up there…and you can hear me, show me the way.” When he hears no response, George drives his car as close to the river as he can in his drunken state, stumbles to the bridge and looks down at the swirling waters. He climbs up on the railing.

This famous scene (at 1:38) reminds me of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but turned on its head. In Capra’s vision, Lazarus gets one more chance, in the form of a man come back from the dead, and it saves him. George’s guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), suddenly present, jumps into the river. George’s habitual virtue sends him over the side, as he leaps into the waters to help a person in need.

“I’m the answer to your prayer,” Clarence tells George as they dry off. “I wish I’d never been born!” George confides. So Clarence nods to heaven —and poof!—the world becomes a place in which George Bailey had never existed.

Guided by Clarence, George sees the effects of his hopelessness, his wish against life. The kingdom of God cannot be found in Bedford Falls without George. In fact, it isn’t even Bedford Falls anymore, but Pottersville. A haunting vision of desperation, petty crime and death rears up everywhere. It is like much of what we see in our world, perhaps also because one person has given up. Clarence shows George what the world would be like if George hadn’t done what he did at key moments. “Strange, isn’t it?” Clarence says. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole.”

Back From the Dead

A few more minutes of this and George prays, “I want to live again!” At that George stands where he was before, on the bridge, missing $8,000 and half-drunk but no longer desperate. Realizing that his life has come back to him, George sprints home, yelling, “Merry Christmas!” to every passerby. His jubilation comes across to others as courage, a willingness to see the hopeful side of a desperate situation. Little do they know: George has just come back from the dead.

Detectives arrive at George’s home with a warrant for his arrest. Then Mary bursts in. She’s been out looking for George, and in the process telling everyone in town what has happened. “Come downstairs,” Mary says; “they’re on their way!” Uncle Billy arrives first, carrying a basket of bills people have thrown in upon hearing that George is in trouble. Then everyone in town leaves some money with a smile and a “Merry Christmas, George.” Bedford Falls turns out to be George’s salvation.

In the Hebrew Bible and in the teachings of Jesus, salvation is not about where you go when you die. To be saved is to be lifted up and set on your feet, stopping the forces that want to catch us by the heels or pull us under.

There is one problem, however, in the generosity of salvation in the film. Ernie the cab driver reads a telegram received from London: “My office instructed to advance you up to $25,000!” writes Sam Wainwright. Though everyone cheers, the look on George’s face suggests something is off.

The uneasiness of Sam’s offer has been lost on millions of viewers over the decades. Sam, though a bit goofy, is conniving and selfish. His headlong pursuit of money permeates every key moment of the movie. He made millions betting on the ground floor of plastics and on properties in Florida. Sam is the man that George is not. And when the meek are supposed to inherit the earth, it’s Sam who tries to make it possible. Don’t believe it. George clearly doesn’t. Those people walking through the door of George and Mary’s house bring enough to satisfy the couple’s every need. That is the message of “It’s a Wonderful Life”: there is power in community.

At the film’s denouement, Harry steps into the living room, someone hands him a glass and he raises a toast: “To my big brother, George. The richest man in town!” Indeed, George is that, and the riches are the sort that the likes of Sam Wainwright will never comprehend.

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Joseph Mulligan
7 years 10 months ago
I was struck by this classic film's identification with the poor and criticism of the rich. Noticing that it was made in 1946, I wondered whether the U.S. government, especially J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, considered it subversive. Sure enough, they did! On May 26, 1947, the FBI issued a memo stating: "With regard to the picture, It's a Wonderful Life, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a 'scrooge-type' so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists. [In] addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters." Imagine a film dramatizing Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain -- “woe to you who are rich, … who are full now” (Lk 6:24—5) – or his parable about the poor and hungry Lazarus and the rich man who was condemned because he “feasted sumptuously” (Lk 16:19-31) and did not share, or other gospel passages in which Jesus expresses good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed. Would the FBI deem such a movie an attempt to discredit the rich, presenting them as scrooge-types and maligning the upper class?
David Pasinski
7 years 10 months ago
Although, like most, I've been inspired by the self-sacrifice of this film as well as the "connectivity" of community. it now creates more questions than satisfaction. George let go of certain dreams-- perhaps for the greater good of others, perhaps not. I wonder if Francis had stayed in Assisi to take over his father's business would have been a more filial or self-sacrificing action instead of following his dream... The "lessons" of this film must be balanced with listening to the call of one's heart... though I will still watch this if with less certainty about its overall moral.
charles harrison
7 years 9 months ago
Interesting point, David, but I think the article is correct with reference to the gospel. Jesus hardly followed the obvious way to the Kingdom of Heaven by being obedient ('thy will, not mine, be done") unto death. Indeed, his choice to not be a conquering hero/king liberator says it all: "I am not of this world." Actually, Francis did stay in Assisi to rebuild the Father's house. He could have used a family building & loan himself. But the dream he ended up following was very different from the Sam Wainwright or John Galt models that George allowed to slip away.

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