I’m not a big fan of most Christmas movies. I know that probably makes me a heretic or monster or whatever, but in my experience, Christmas movies have often ridden on the coattails of the holiday, relying on emotional identification to carry what is otherwise a lackluster plot. Such is the case with many Christmas movies. However, every once in a while, one shines through with a story that is so terrific, so extraordinary, so heartwarming, that I not only enjoy it, but it even makes THE LIST, my inventory of must see films.
It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those movies.
It follows the life of George Bailey, starting from the time he saved his brother from drowning, following him through adulthood, marriage, fatherhood, and the many trials he faced in saving his family business from being taken over by the corrupt Mr. Potter. The tale of his life takes up the majority of the movie, but the true conflict comes when George’s uncle misplaces some money and George faces the possibility of arrest as a result. Because of this and other problems, he begins contemplating suicide. That’s when his wingless guardian angel Clarence gets sent down to help him out.
Now before we get into the interactions between George and Clarence, let’s take a look at George’s life as a whole.
I mentioned before that he saved his brother from drowning. When he was a child he also saved his employer from unknowingly poisoning a child. He also saved his father’s business from drowning, and had to use the money for his honeymoon to do so. He’s quite a spectacular individual, but before all of that, he wanted to get away. To get away from his hometown and see the world. This ambition is what makes George Bailey a very accessible character, even though the movie was released more than sixty years ago! If you grew up in a small town, you probably can relate to George’s ambitions. He wanted to get out, to explore, to do great things. He tells his father that he wants to do something important. What he ended up doing was very important; it just wasn’t big.
One of the most compelling parts of the story is the love story between George and Mary. We get a glimpse of them as children when Mary says (into George’s bad ear so he can’t hear her) “I’ll always love you, George Bailey.” This is in contrast to Violet, who we see flirting with him at that young age, but we quickly learn that she does the same with all of the boys that she meets. Mary, on the other hand, only has eyes for George.
It takes him a while to come around. He is very smitten with her (and she, still, with him) when he comes back to town for his little brother’s graduation, and he and Mary hit it off. He’s not very shy about his affections for her, even offering to lasso the moon for her in what is perhaps the film’s most iconic scene. It’s this same scene that Mary loses her robe and George, while she is hiding in the bushes, “contemplates the situation” before giving it back to her. That’s an unfortunate part of the film, since the rest of their story is quite sweet and innocent.
After that night he leaves and comes back after college. He’s awful cranky to say the least, since he’s learned that his little brother isn’t going to take over the family business, which leaves him in charge of it, ruining his plans of seeing the world. Mary is persistent though, and the two of them wind up marrying. It’s right after their wedding that George and Mary decide to use all of their money from the honeymoon to help save the family business and keep Mr. Potter from taking it over. As their story continues, George keeps doing more good, and the two of them have four kids, making what should be a very happy life.
It is, for a while. But sometimes circumstances make things difficult. Financial problems and threats of arrest make George’s life difficult, which is what drives him to possible suicide. After Clarence saves him from that, however, George goes from suicide to saying it would have been better if he’d never been born. So Clarence shows him what that would be like. The results are pretty tragic. Mr. Potter has completely taken over the town. George’s brother, who had become a war hero, is dead, as are all of the people that he would have saved. His employer is an ex-convict. His wife was now an old maid. His children never existed. It’s a dark, dark place. And so George prays for his life to return, and he comes back to reality with a grin on his face.
There’s still the matter of his arrest and the money, however. For a few minutes. Then all of the people in town that George has ever helped come in with money to help him replace what’s been lost (which had been found and pocketed by Mr. Potter, in an attempt to drive him under). In short, it turns out to be the best Christmas George had ever seen.
There’s a lot to be learned from this story. The most obvious is that things are never quite so bad as they seem at the time. A second, more valuable lesson, is that God does a lot of good through us that we never see. That’s not something that should make us proud, but instead something that we should thank God for. He certainly accomplished good through His son, and in the same amazing providence, he manages to help others through us, and help us through others. The third, and I think the lesson that George likely learned through it all, is that just because you aren’t seeing the world or leaving a historic mark on society, doesn’t mean that what you’re doing doesn’t make a difference. His life made a tremendous amount of difference, simply because he lived selflessly and helped others. If we live God’s way and serve Him, there’s no telling how much good we will do, and we will likely never know the half of it. I find that tremendously encouraging.