Scrooge’s nephew calls Christmas “a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Death is common to man, and this sobering thought leads them into generosity, forgiveness, and cheer at Christmas time. Sweet Home Alabama, without the morbid sobriety of Scrooge’s nephew, exhorts viewers to reconciliation. O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” praises sacrifice and self-giving. Christmas is a time to better oneself and to grow in virtue.
By slavish ritual, my family watches It’s a Wonderful Life every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My dad’s parents were George and Mary, so we feel a special privilege when we watch it. Although we own a color version, we prefer it in black and white.
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) dreams of traveling the world. Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) dreams of marrying George Bailey. His father’s stroke frustrates George’s attempt at escaping Bedford Falls and makes him executive secretary of the Bailey Building and Loan. He gives his college money to his younger brother, who gets married and takes a job from his father-in-law. The day that George and Mary marry, there is a run on the bank, and Mary volunteers their honeymoon fund to save the business. They refurbish an old house and have four children. George inherits his father’s nemesis and the town’s slumlord, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who tempts George with a job paying ten times what George is now making. George withstands the temptation and carries on his mission of giving the poor affordable housing in the face of Mr. Potter’s selfish capitalism. Despite his tireless virtue, George suffers from anxiety over unfulfilled dreams and a meager income, which lead him into despair on Christmas Eve.
The film centers around the tension between stability and adventure, represented by George and Mary’s marriage. “George” comes from the Greek for “farmer,” but his interests lie in engineering and technology. Mary Hatch is an emblem of stability, domesticity, loyalty, and service. Her fidelity carries so far that had George not been born, she never would have married. She practices humility and patience, transforming an old abandoned house into the honeymoon suite while George deals with the run on the bank. While George and Mary are impeccably virtuous, the film also presents a massive icon of greed in Mr. Potter, who sits on his money with no use for it or children to spend it on. George and his father exemplify generosity almost to the point of imprudence. But the vice of envy lurks for George. As George compares himself with others, he is lead into a practical nihilism, the conviction that his life is worse than no life at all.
The film alludes to a few interesting pieces of literature. The book which Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) the angel brings to earth is Tom Sawyer. This seems like a strange choice for someone enjoying the beatific vision, but upon further consideration it makes sense since George has a boyish love of adventure. There is also a famous scene in the Mark Twain novel where the protagonist witnesses his own funeral and overhears what all his friends and relatives have to say about him. George is given a similar gift when he wishes he had never been born, and heaven grants this wish for didactic purposes. It’s a Wonderful Life also refers to The Bells of St. Mary’s, which is playing in the theatre at Bedford Falls. This other Christmas movie also plays with the tension between an adventurous male and a steady female through the interactions of Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), a laissez-faire priest, and Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman), a rule-following nun. Capra’s film is conscious that it belongs to a literary and cinematic tradition.
Although the film is not primarily a romance, one of the most significant scenes happens on the night of a party for Harry, George’s younger brother. When George feels he is too old for the party, his mother pushes him in the direction of Mary’s house and calls her “the kind that will help you find the answers.” When Mary sees George outside, she fixes her hair, puts on a record of “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight?”, and displays her drawing of “George Lassos The Moon.” When her attempts at romance fail due to George’s melancholic angst, she turns to flirting on the phone with Sam Wainwright, whom her mother wants her to marry. Sam asks Mary to put George on the line as well, and he offers them both jobs in his up-and-coming field. Throughout the phone call George is smelling Mary’s hair and looking at her face. His passion heightens until he drops the phone, grabs Mary by the shoulders, and yells, “Now you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics! I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married—ever—to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do.” His anger turns to love, and they begin kissing and crying. In the making of the film, Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart left out an entire page of dialogue. When notified of this, Capra replied, “With technique like that, who needs dialogue?” The high intensity telephone scene seems to represent George sacrificing his desire for independence and adventure to Mary’s love for Bedford Falls and him.
The film is essentially Aristotelian since it ends with Clarence proclaiming through his gift to George: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” Aristotle says the same thing in his Ethics: “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods.” Capra invites theological and philosophical discussion by positing existence as a thing which one can either have or not have. St. Athanasius brings up a similar question in On the Incarnation, in which he explains the “divine dilemma” thus: God created man out of nothing, but man through sin is returning to nothingness. The destruction of God’s own creature into the abyss of non-existence threatens God’s dignity as Creator. Athanasius argues that it is therefore fitting for God to save man to defend his own glory. Existence is better than non-existence because God is being and evil is nothing. To translate this philosophy into Capra’s film, it is unfitting that George should fade into non-existence, so God sends an angel to convince him that being is better than non-being. More than anything, It’s a Wonderful Life reminds me of G. K. Chesterton’s book Manalive, in which a man travels around the world in search of a greener lawn, happier children, and a prettier wife only to end up back home in merry olde England. Chesterton wants to show that change in the man’s vision, not in the surroundings. The fundamental messages of Chesterton and Capra are the same: gratitude is necessary for happiness.
The film pits the vices of envy and greed against the virtues of generosity and kindness. But the most fundamental virtue of the movie is hope. One can sin against hope in two ways: through presumption or despair. Most of us give into presumption on a regular basis; we take our lives for granted. George Bailey, however, manifests the opposite problem: a battle with despair. To shake us out of our complacency, we need to see a virtuous man struggle with suicidal thoughts. Nothing else will do to wake us from our self-satisfied slumber. On Christmas we ought to appreciate the gift of existence and realize the terrible danger of comparing ourselves to others. If we compared our life to no life at all, we would thank our lucky stars.