My Mixed Feelings About ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

The first time I saw this movie, as far as I can recall (since it’s been a long, long time), my feelings about it were generally positive. For one thing, the movie is about an ordinary fellow who basically saves a town, despite the machinations of a much wealthier man. It was the kind of movie that played on the David and Goliath theme. The Powerful Man tries to ruin the Little Guy, who ends up realizing he’s wealthy in ways the powerful man never will be.

It’s also a typical example of “Capra-corn”, a sentimental cinematic style that extolled the virtues of the common man that some dismissed as saccharine. Which at the time, I was okay with, even if it did seem to go a bit over the top now and then.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s obvious that our society (as represented by the town of Bedford Falls) is far from completely egalitarian. Nonetheless, despite the large disparity in their assets and social standing, George Bailey (our protagonist) comes out the winner in the end.

When I was much younger, I kind of accepted all this at face value. Naturally, George Bailey was the better person. Of course, having friends was better than being a lonely millionaire. But I didn’t look much deeper into the film’s assumptions and the social mores considered acceptable at that time.

However, the more I watched this film, the more depressing I found it with each viewing.

Almost from the start, we learn that George wants to travel. He wants to see the world. A feeling I can deeply understand, as I’m a fan of travel and have also dreamed of visiting other countries. But, unlike George, have been fortune enough to manage it, now and then.

But then along comes Mary, who through a series of scenes ends up practically being shoved into George Bailey’s arms. Not literally, of course. I’m talking about the circumstances and everyone’s assumption that the two of them are meant to be together, which is made so obvious by the opening scene featuring young George, young Mary, and young Violet (who’s so obviously destined to be the Town Slut).

So the two of them go to a dance, fall in a pool, and have a talk while dripping wet about lassoing the moon. Then, some old guy spying on them from his porch yells at George. Something to the effect of, “What are you waiting for? Kiss her already!”

Well, obviously, he simply must marry her. And they simply must have children. And when George tries his best to take a trip to anywhere else, his plans are foiled by such disasters as a run on the bank—Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.

So there’s the bank and the town and Mary and the kids to think of. Not to mention his dear, sweet Mama, now that Bailey Senior has passed on, leaving the bank in George’s capable hands, with help from the not-so-capable Uncle Billy.

Eventually, I came to see this inspiring and heartwarming holiday movie as having undertones of tragedy. It seemed to me that George was living according to everyone else’s expectations about him, rather than a life he truly chose.

However now, having gained a few more years experience (both with movies and living, in general), I can see there’s more to this picture than promotion of societal mores and people’s expectations.

At its heart, the movie is about the difference one person can make. The fact that, but for George’s intervention, his brother, Harry, would’ve died by drowning. (And we all know that Harry practically won World War II single-handedly was an honored veteran.) There are also the early scenes, in which George saved the town pharmacist by alerting him to his mistake in filling a prescription. If George hadn’t existed, his career would have been ruined. This is all assuming no one else would have noticed the pharmacist’s error, saved Harry, or done any number of things. But, in the interest of not driving you crazy with a lawyer’s logic on all that, let’s assume George truly is the key to everyone else’s good fortune.

Unfortunately, because Uncle Billy is an idiot likes to brag too much is a moron, he accidentally leaves a large amount of cash with the Big Bad Rich Guy, Mr. Potter, who pockets it with glee. This leads George ultimately to a very bad night seeking the money and begging Potter for a loan. Naturally, Potter denies to loan, adding in as an aside that, given his life insurance, George would be better off dead.

And so George considers taking his own life, but is stopped from doing so by Clarence the Angel, who is actually the first character to appear in the movie—technically. It is Clarence who walks George through the Christmas Carol-like scenario of Life Without George Bailey. And the horrors of the place formerly known as Bedford Falls and now called Potterville.

Image via BFI

In Potterville, basically everyone George once knew has become a grumpy asshole, because life in their town sucks now. And the “loose woman” Violet (played more-than-ably by Gloria Grahame) is turning tricks or whatever horrible thing she does to get by. (And, by the way, I’ve never liked the way Violet’s depicted in this film. So, she likes guys. Oh, how very awful! For shame!)

“Yeah, yeah. I’m a slut. Whatta about it?” (Image via Suggesting Movie)

But the worst fate of all is reserved for Mary, who is relegated to spinster status. A spinster who works at … wait for it … the library! OMG!

I suppose my feelings about the film have mellowed somewhat over time. I get it. George Bailey is essentially a surrogate for all of us who feel ordinary and possibly somewhat less than fulfilled on occasion.

What saves the movie for me is its emphasis on how much George really made a difference, even if he couldn’t see it. That gives me a weird kind of hope somehow.

Image via The Deliberate Agrarian

I also really believe he is the richest man in town. Having a successful friend who bails you out when you hit a rough patch kinda helps, but hey—choose your friends wisely, I suppose. Even if they do say annoying things like, “See you in funnies! Hee haw!” way, way too much.

Click here for 25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life! 🙂

Here’s one of many quotes from the movie!

Submitted as part of the It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon and 75th anniversary celebration hosted by The Classic Movie Muse!

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27 Responses to My Mixed Feelings About ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

  1. moviefanman says:

    I totally get how you have mixed feelings on this one, which is perfectly OK with me and I hope lots of others. I think the best way to look at It’s a Wonderful Life is about a fella who realizes everyone, no matter how small they may seem in the overall big picture, are still important, and shine a much needed array of hope amidst a group of people, be they big or small. Yes, how the town would crumble if he hadn’t been born is really over the top, but the key for the lesson to really sink in and be effective is to show the absolute worst that could possibly happen, though to be fair the absolute worst is never always what happens. We have to remember as well this was made after WWII ended, so the American public of the time was really in need of something to show things were going to get better now that the biggest crisis of the time was over, even if the values of the time seem heavily cliched to us now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Welcome to It’s a Wonderful Life Blogathon: A 75th Anniversary Celebration!! – The Classic Movie Muse

  3. Barry Lane says:

    I have no mixed feelings and there is no social statement beyond the personal — we all have them, dreams unrealized, and George Bailey aspired to more than he got out of life, but that, as it turns out was and is enough. Success and failure define one another. Over complication just spoils the process.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What I have garnered from It’s a Wonderful Life over the years is that — Well, that’s life. It rarely turns out as we hope or expect but that shouldn’t make it any less wonderful in its own way. In George’s prayer at the bridge, he sincerely realizes how much his wife and family mean to him. In his despair, he had to find out what really mattered.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Debbi, thank you for sharing your IAWL journey with us. As you’ve said, this film reminds us of something we all need from time to time – each individual matters, and our actions, be they big or small, are capable of making a difference.

    Thanks so much for joining and contributing this introspective post to my blogathon!! 🙂 Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I totally get when you are coming from. For quite a few years, I couldn’t watch this movie. George was such a downer, grumpy and complaining and he just irritated me. However, feeling the need for a little hope and kindness this year, I know I will find my way back to it. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debbi says:

      Thanks! It’s nice to know I’m not all alone in my changing perspective on this movie.

      Maybe I’ll even watch it this year! We could all use a little more hope. 🙂

      Like

  7. I, too, have had mixed feelings about this film. For YEARS, one of the most problematic moments to me was the supposedly “romantic” kiss that everyone else in the world seemed to love, yet all I saw was a thoroughly disagreeable man shaking a young woman. It bothered me terribly – along with the way George takes his misery out on his innocent family. But over time, I’ve begun to see much more (surprisingly relatable) significance in his actions – and in the movie itself.

    A couple issues I’d never considered before reading this post is how someone else could’ve stepped up to do what George did in life, and the film’s implications about Mary’s alternate fate. Both gave me pause. However, ultimately, I think it’s entirely possible that no one else could fill the gap left by George. The other boys may have been too distracted, too far away, or too scared and confused to help Harry. (It’s George who alerts them and organizes them into a chain.) And it’s possible that no other delivery boy would’ve been as observant as George. (George puts together the details of what happened to Mr. Grower’s son – via the telegram, how upset he feels, and what was put into the capsule. Some young boys generally seem far more oblivious.) Of course, the opposite is just as possible, but I think the argument at least exists that no one could take George’s place.

    The point about Mary is now the one that bugs me most. It certainly seems there are some societal expectations at work there, and – as a single, childless woman myself – I am sensitive to that. But after some thought, I say that some women can be entirely fulfilled without marriage or children, but maybe Mary was not destined to be one of them. She was meant to be George’s wife and the mother of his children – but only George. She says herself that she married him to keep from being an old maid and that she didn’t want to marry anybody else. Assuming destiny is a thing, if Mary was meant to remain single, she could’ve been a thoroughly happy and fulfilled librarian – living a valuable life and making a difference in so many other ways. But Mary was meant to marry George, and if he doesn’t exist, he leaves a hole in her soul where her sense of purpose and fulfillment would be. The Pottersville Mary probably lived knowing something was “off” in her life, but not knowing exactly what. Of course, none of us knows for sure what we’re “destined” to do in life (or if there is such a thing as destiny), but I shouldn’t be rocked in my sense of fulfillment as a currently single woman just because this film shows a woman who would ultimately be deeply unhappy if she remained single and childless.

    Thanks for making me stop, think, and articulate. 🙂 It was nice to participate in another blogathon with you. If you haven’t yet, I’d love for you to check out my post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barry Lane says:

      You are onto something, but to complete your thesis, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, made a few years earlier, and not a Christmas film, is a must-see. I’ll say no more.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Debbi says:

      I can see you’ve given this some thought.

      Thing about Mary and her “fate” as a single librarian is that it fits the expectations for women at that time, at least in movies. So many movies back then suggested a woman wasn’t “complete” without a man. I’ve never understood that attitude, but it’s existed for a long time.

      Thanks for writing. I’ll have to check out your post. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, yes. I totally bought into that notion for far too long myself (probably influenced by so many movies and TV shows, plus the cultural expectations around me at the time). It can be damaging. I guess we should be thankful that we live in a (mostly) different time.

        But I think, for better or worse, in this movie – this one individual woman was not complete without this one individual man. At least the film makes them “soulmates” (Mary doesn’t want or need just any man, only George) – but I guess that concept is problematic in itself (though you’d have to throw away almost all fiction with any romance in it to avoid it completely…And, in all honesty, I still think it’s a sweet, romantic idea.).

        Also, the detail of Mary wanting to restore the old Granville house at least gives her some uniqueness that’s separate from her husband and family – though she is making it a home for herself AND her family. Still, it would’ve been an impractical, unreachable dream if she stayed single. So, at least she got her house (along with her soulmate and children). 😉

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Eric Binford says:

    I think it is perfectly natural to have mixed feelings about the movie. Even though it has become a Christmas classic, the movie is much darker than what it appears to be at first glance, and I’m convinced that the underlying grimness was intentional. I think the war changed Capra and the film reflects the filmmaker’s post-war disillusionment. Yes, George realizes that life is indeed wonderful, but he also learns that life can be cruel.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Mary’s alternative life is completely unrealistic, in my opinion. I recently read that Capra once said, if given the chance to do it again, he would have made Mary a successful businesswoman.

    However, I agree this film is much darker than it first appears, and I love it for that reason. I like that Clarence is a bit of a bumbler, because he lightens the dark undertones.

    Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debbi says:

      Wow! I didn’t know that about Capra on Mary. Sends an ever-so-slightly different message about business over family. 🙂

      As for Clarence, how could anyone not love him? Especially his drink orders! 🙂 A flaming red punch, I think? LOL

      I’ll admit, despite my feelings in the past, I’ve come to appreciate the filmmaker’s intent here. Guess I’m just an old softy. 🙂 Despite any darkness in this film.

      Liked by 1 person

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