Synopsis: George Bailey of Bedford Falls has a personal crisis on Christmas Eve. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an American Christmas classic filmed in 1946. It tells the moving story of a family subjected to its patriarch’s wild mood swings.
Jimmy Stewart stars as George Bailey, resident of the small town of Bedford Falls in upstate New York. He lives a modest life, working hard to keep the family business going, married to fellow local Mary (Donna Reed) and father of their four children.
We’re told repeatedly that George is a great friend and family man– decent and generous to a fault. But George is beleaguered by the loss of his youthful dreams and the malignant local banker, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). You’ll see how his circumstances stress him out, pushing him to the brink. But does this excuse his excesses?
The movie begins with George in crisis. Against a snowy Christmas eve landscape, we hear the prayers of friends and family… I owe everything to George Bailey…He never thinks about himself…George is a good guy. Give him a break, God…Please, God. Something’s the matter with Daddy.
Something’s the matter with Daddy, indeed! Film lore lionizes George Bailey as a good and godly American hero, but the whole movie shows him as anything but. George Bailey is verbally abusive and violent; he makes various threats and even assaults and batters a collection of townspeople and family members. How does his conduct make for any sort of example of the Christmas spirit of well wishing and good deeds?
Maybe George’s childhood has clues to his later behaviors. The movie shows an exciting scene wherein George and some other neighbor boys are sledding down a hill at breakneck speeds onto a partially ice-covered pond. George’s younger brother’s turn comes up and George hollers for everybody to look out for his “scare-baby” brother, Harry. So then the little kid sputters that he’s not scared and takes a dare devil turn and smashes through the ice. George does rescue him, but the whole accident was precipitated by George’s taunts.
Kid George is no better to his classmates. Even though he’s only about ten years old he works after school as a soda jerk (old timey term for person who works the food & drink counter at a drug store). Obvi, Bedford Falls circa 1919 had no laws against child labor. Unless they are working, all of the kids run around town with no supervision whatsoever. Into the drug store come classmates Violet and Mary (his future wife). When they sit down to order ice cream, he actually calls Mary “brainless” because she doesn’t like coconut. He goes on to tell her that he will explore the world some day and have “a couple of harems …three or four wives.” Run, Mary, run!
Onward to Adult George… We get to see Jimmy Stewart as George now. George has been living at his parents’ and working at the family Building & Loan. His brother (the one he belittled earlier) is graduating from high school and they will be having a hella good party at the high school gym, with the teens sneaking hooch and dancing the Charleston.
Before dropping by the school to check out the scene, George tells his father that he wants to “build things…plan modern cities” and that he’d go crazy if he had to be cooped up for the rest of his life in a “shabby little office.” You know, like his dad.
George meanders over to the gymnasium party and ends up flirting with former “brainless” classmate, Mary who inexplicably has a crush on him. He asks her to dance and before long everyone is feverishly doing the Charleston like their lives depend on it. In fact, George and Mary are so infatuated with each other that they don’t notice that some prankster has turned the key to open the gym floor, under which is a massive swimming pool –Bedford Falls must have some tax base. Plunging into the pool, they keep dancing joyfully. Soon other students jump in, followed by faculty, until it looks like a scene from the sinking of the Titanic.
Several years pass and George is stuck working in Bedford Falls. When his brother Harry graduates from college, it’s George’s turn to get out of town. Uh-oh, his little bro has eloped and his new wife tells George that her father has offered him a job at a glass factory because Harry is such a genius at research. Yes, many college students spend their time researching the mysteries of glass.
Major Meltdown #1
Will George never free himself from his small town life? He leaves the family house where relatives are gathered to welcome Harry and his bride. His mother suggests he visit Mary. George makes his way to her place and paces the sidewalk until Mary, seeing him from a widow, invites him in. He kicks open the gate and sulks into the house. Mary tries to draw him out with small talk, but he slouches glumly on the couch, disgusted when she reveals that she didn’t stay in New York City to work because she was homesick. She plays a record for them and he rolls his eyes when she sings along.
He quickly follows up with another insult when Mary remarks on Harry’s good news. George opines that while marriage might be good enough for Harry, Mary and the other townies, he is too exceptional for the institution. Suddenly, Mary’s mother calls out to her from upstairs, reminding her that Sam “Hee Haw” Wainwright, a mutual friend of Mary and George, will be calling her from New York soon. George leaves in a huff and Mary stalks over to the record player, and in a fit of pique at George’s rudeness, grabs the record and smashes it before reluctantly picking up the ringing phone that looks like an Alexander Graham Bell prototype model.
George barges back in the house to retrieve his forgotten hat and gets jealous because he’s a bitter idiot who doesn’t realize that–in the parlance of the times– he’s got the hots for Mary. Mary mentions to the bozo Hee Haw (who earned the annoying moniker because he says Hee Haw every five seconds while miming donkey ears) that George has stopped by. Hee Haw says he wants to speak to George about an investment opportunity that Mary can get in on too. Mary and George huddle together to share the mouth piece and soon begin breathing heavily, the sexual tension rising between them, as Hee Haw blathers on. Suddenly, George drops the phone, grabs Mary and begins shaking her. As Mary cries, he tells her that he never wants to get married and he wants to do what he, George “the bastard” Bailey wants to do. Then Mary nearly collapses as he moans her name over and over. Immediately afterward, we are treated to the scene of George and Mary– getting married! Against the odds, I was hoping for the best, for Mary’s sake, and was relieved to see George smiling and embracing his bride.
Abuse of Uncle Billy
Now, that was the first big blowup we see of George’s and there will be a second shocking incident which happens about ten years later. But first, I have to tell you about George’s Uncle Billy who was a co-founder, along with George’s dad, of the family’s Building & Loan. Billy can best be described as an incompetent old fool. When Billy was an incompetent younger fool, George’s dad died of a stroke; probably brought on by the stress of having to correct all of Billy’s blunders at work. This is why George is stuck in Bedford Falls; if he leaves town the business would surely fail and the good people of Bedford Falls would have to go to evil Mr. Potter’s bank for usurous loans.
Well… on Christmas Eve, not long after the end of WWII, the whole town is decked out in its holiday finery and awaiting the return of war hero Harry Bailey. Uncle Billy has one errand–one GD thing to get right– before the end of the work day. He needs to deposit a stack of bills at the bank. Easy, right? Not for this fool. Billy sees Mr. Potter at the bank and boasts about Harry and George Bailey, knowing this will get Mr. Potter’s metaphorical goat. While traipsing around the bank lobby he unwittingly drops the money and then, realizing his mistake, looks around and can’t find it. (Holy Shite, Mr. Potter discovered the money and swiped it!)
Billy scurries back to work in a discombobulated state where two relatives are competently discharging their duties as Jimmy the Raven hops around the counters. Jimmy is one of Billy’s pets and when he sees Billy he swoops onto his shoulder, picking up on the vibe that Billy has fumbled yet another task.
Billy hightails it to his office and shuts the door. George soon returns from wreath-buying and the employees shoot each other knowing looks, telling George that Billy is holed up in his office. Upon entering we see that Billy has torn his office apart looking for the lost cash.
Now George has to scour the streets and bank floor looking for the cash. That evening, back at Billy’s place, George begs Billy to think of anyplace it could be, but Billy lets his head fall and cries. George viciously grabs his uncle (much like his manhandling of Mary) and shakes him yelling, Where’s that money, you stupid silly old fool?! One of us is going to jail and it’s not going to be me! George stomps out of Billy’s, but not before kicking over some furniture. Billy continues to weep as his pet squirrel comforts him by scrambling up his sleeve–or maybe the creature is just desperately searching for nuts that Billy has forgotten to put out for them. It looks like Jimmy the Raven will have to take over household management.
I say: Good for you, George! Uncle Billy is a stupid, silly old fool. Best to head home to your loving family and think this through…
Major Meltdown #2
George is in a very tough spot because of Uncle Billy’s idiocy; the business could well fail, he could be arrested and his family left penniless. He needs a solution. This will require some clear headedness. A normal thing to do might be to call a lawyer or confide in your spouse. But this is not the Bailey way.
George arrives home, preoccupied and agitated. Mary and the children are busy decorating and celebrating in the family room/parlor. George acts confused when inquiries are made as to the whereabouts of his coat and the promised Christmas wreath. He collapses into an easy chair and his toddler son scrambles onto his lap, draping his hair with tinsel as tears stream down George’s face.
I know we are supposed to believe that George is the greatest guy on Earth, but I have a hunch that this is how a typical night starts at the Baileys’ with bitter, taciturn George bringing everyone down as soon as he walks through the door.
In a burst of energy he snaps at his young daughter, Janey, who is practicing Christmas Carols on the piano, Must she keep playing that?! Mary must be used to George’s wild mood swings because she expertly ushers him into the kitchen, away from the children. On the way there, George manages to bitch at Mary that he doesn’t want the families visiting. He also rails against one of his sons when he exclaims about the neighbors’ new car. Ever the caring father, George yells, Isn’t our car good enough for you?!
George stops assailing his family for five minutes when he learns that cutie pie liitle kindergartner Zuzu (best name of all time) is resting in bed with a cold. He blames her condition on the house, “a drafty old barn” and even the “crummy old town” as though there are not cold viruses anywhere else in America. In reality, even people who live in the city, like Hee Haw, can have a bout of sniffles.
George should really concentrate on problem solving…and he finds his opportunity! Mary takes a call from Zuzu’s teacher who wants to know how Zuzu is feeling. George wrenches the phone away from Mary and berates the poor woman for letting Zuzu leave the classroom with an unbuttoned coat–not how you get a virus, and the child doesn’t have frostbite. This doesn’t stop George. He’s really on a roll, haranguing her that he doesn’t pay taxes to have “silly, stupid people” neglect his kid. Mary frantically tries to grab the phone from George, but not before he threatens to beat the stuffing out of the teacher’s husband. Wow, George really carries the spirit of Christmas in his heart.
Hopefully, George has worn himself out and will become a little calmer. Sadly, he is just getting started. He is on the cusp of his coup de grace to Christmas joy. George stalks back into the family room where the children are arrayed. In rapid succession he hollers at the toddler to stop pretending to vacuum and bellows Stop it! Now stop it! at Janie for playing the “silly tune”( the venerated classic Hark ! The Herald Angels Sing).
Finally, like a vengeful god, George turns his attention to the spectacular model city he has assembled and displayed. It takes pride of place in front of the widow; it must have taken months to design and construct. In one fell swoop, this Destroyer of Dreams kicks over the cityscape. (Recall how he had practice earlier in the day when he kicked over Uncle Billy’s possessions.) For good measure, he hurls some books. Maybe they are architecture books or anger management manuals. Who knows?
Good work, George! Now the three children, Pete, Janie and Tommy, are crying while Mary stands protectively clutching them. Where is God in moments like this? Well, God is not in Bedford Falls that Christmas Eve. Bless Mary Bailey, who confronts him, George, why must you torture the children? Why don’t you… Leave us in peace goes unsaid. But, momentarily spent, the beastly Mr. Bailey whirls around and heads out the door.
I was so glad that little Zuzu was upstairs. Maybe this was no mistake. If, as I suspected, this was a typical night at the Bailey’s, Zuzu had a good avoidance strategy: claim illness and drift off to her room.
Dysfunction in Bedford Falls
It’s a Wonderful Life? For whom? Certainly not for Mary Bailey and the children. And why should we, powerless onlookers in this drama, be expected to buy into the fantasy that George Bailey is not just a good guy, but some sort of exemplary human being?
But he’s under stress! Boo hoo, so are lots of adults! I do realize that in the 1940s, pharmaceutical treatment of mood disorders was off on the horizon. And macho paternalism was probably a common justification for outbursts. But there is no excuse to terrorize your family or community members. And thanks for ruining Christmas, George! Quite the achievement.
So, maybe It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t your typical cheery holiday movie. But as a character study of George Bailey, the movie is very effecting.
Oh, also the second half of the movie is pretty trippy, with an angel named Clarence coming down to Earth and showing George Bailey what life would have been like if he’d never been born. It involves unlikely personality changes in the residents of Bedford Falls and even metaphysics-defying weather changes in this alternative world.
And whatever you do on Christmas, make sure to spread nothing but love and peace. Unlike George Bailey.