This 1946 Frank Capra Christmas classic is based on the short story entitled The Greatest Gift (published in booklet form by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943) and is the ultimate feel-good holiday movie with many great life lessons. Just what we need during these trying times with so many people feeling discontented over COVID-19 and news of more contagious strains of the virus. This popular Xmas film set in the fictional town of Bedford Falls (aka Pottersville) regained popularity in the 1970s when the film’s copyright lapsed, and networks proceeded to broadcast it for free annually to adoring audiences.
The film opens with everyone fervently praying for a troubled George Bailey (James Stewart). So much so heavenly angels are summoned to act in his defense by sending to Earth, angel-in-waiting Clarence (Henry Travers) who has yet to earn his wings. Clarence intercepts George’s life clutching a book by Mark Twain at the pinnacle of George’s demise but not before learning the backstory of his voyage to the brink. Keep in mind Clarence’s hardcover volume is Tom Sawyer (whose character in the book incidentally witnesses his own funeral), as it is a significant clue about the main take-away message of this movie.
The tale unfolds by showing that since childhood George Bailey, an impenetrable dreamer, envisions an exciting life of higher education, adventure, building cities, and world travel far away from his modest digs. Forever planning his escape from boyhood to manhood George seems to perpetually be held back by the firm grip of his mundane life. As a morally sound person who always does the right thing George’s personal goals continually get sidetracked much to his deep frustration and dismay. To expand, as George prepares to embark on his long-awaited ambition to attend college his father falls ill and dies. As a result George is faced with a dilemma. If he leaves his father’s company the Bailey Bros. Savings & Loans will be taken over by the town miser, wealthy heartless businessman Mr. Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) who greedily plots to monopolize every company in sight. In all good conscience George forces himself to stay back, postpone college, and operate his late father’s business to ensure its independence. Doing so allows poor town-folk a financial lending alternative to Mr. Potter’s high interest rip-off options. George instead sends his younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) to school with his tuition money. Though George shares his deceased father’s philanthropic disposition, he has own ideas of a what makes for a successful life and is itching to get out of Dodge to make it happen.
After four long years managing the family business waiting for his younger brother to return to take over George learns Harry has taken a bride while away and has been offered a promising job by his father-in-law in the city. Again, George is left holding the bag along with the disappointing entrapment of Bedford Falls. In the interim young Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who has loved George since childhood, also returns from college all grown up with eyes only for George. Long story short, George falls for Mary despite resisting, but then plans to incorporate his new spouse into his exciting expeditions aboard. An ironclad plan, but upon leaving for their honeymoon George witnesses a run on the bank. Mr. Potter who owns all financial institutions other than the Bailey Bros. Savings & Loans has purposely called in all loans in an effort to overtake the small Bailey’s stand-alone company. Though when George’s new wife Mary offers up the couple’s celebratory money to desperate Bailey’s patrons the company lives to see another day. But the tradeoff leaves George once again robbed of his break and confined to his small life in his small town. George is crushed but knows, ‘If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan, there’ll never be another decent house built in this town. He’s already got charge of the banks, buses… and now he’s after us!’ George adopts his late father’s humanitarian approach to life helping immigrants buy their own homes, referred to by the hateful racist Mr. Potter as ‘garlic eaters’. George begins to truly see the value in what his departed father told him (‘I feel that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace.’) and works tirelessly to accommodate other people. However, he cannot fully suppress the pangs of resentment and contempt over living a life he never really chose or wanted.
As the years go by, a war is fought, four children are born, and the likelihood of George ever leaving Bedford Falls dims as his common-day existence stabilizes. That is until one day when George’s loopy uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses a high-stakes bank deposit owed to Mr. Potter worth thousands of dollars. Unable to pay his debt, George faces utter ruin. Not only will his hard-earned reputation be soiled beyond repair, but with fraud charges looming, jail is a certainty. After despondently roaming the streets George finds himself on the ledge of a bridge. Under immense pressure and unable to cope with yet another setback George deems his life to be absolutely worthless and contemplates suicide. Though before he can act on his dark thoughts, angel Clarence plunges into the icy waters below knowing George will come to his rescue, which he does. After much discussion about George’s complete lack of value to his family and society, George wishes he had never been born. Clarence converses with the higher powers that be, then grants the wish. George will see life as if he never lived. After traversing many negatives George witnesses the magnitude of his absence and finally realizes what a significant role and positive impact he has had on so many lives. It is then that George wishes to live again ‘God please let me live again’. Without giving everything away let’s stop there and breakdown the many valuable life lessons of this cinematic masterpiece.
First, one key take-away is that people often walk around dead in their lives, dissatisfied while thinking the grass is greener on the other side (only because there’s more bullshit over there). As if in a holding pattern waiting for that one magnanimous event that will bring happiness, instead of appreciating the current moment. The fact is life happens bit by bit and if we are not fully present in our lives we will miss out on the many everyday blessings we take for granted. As the French proverb states, ‘Petit a petit, l’oiseau fait son nid’, which translated means ‘Little by little, the bird makes its nest.’ The message here is that life requires perseverance and patience to complete the task of a life well lived so don’t forget to smell the roses along the way. Second, we must gracefully flow with whatever circumstances we encounter as some of the greatest gifts are received through what we cannot control. One caveat, in these circumstances we must let intuition takes over as a true heart always knows the way even when the head is facing the other direction. Third, to really live means experiencing extreme highs and lows. Even though sadness and loss are unwelcomed guests they teach us to value happiness and fulfillment. Yin & Yang – both are required for balance. Fourth, this movie shows us that our lives are very precious and hold much more meaning than we give ourselves credit for. Unfortunately realizing the specialness of important relationships sometimes comes too late when they are already slipping away. Fifth, this flick stresses the importance of friendship, particularly highlighted via Clarence’s final message to George scribed in his coveted Mark Twain book, ‘No man is a failure who has friends.’ Now all five mores are powerful messages indeed, but none are the primary take-away of this movie. Instead the main meaning lays more in what makes for a successful life. Is it riches, travel, education, family, children, accomplishments…? No, no, no, no, no, no… It is true that all these elements of life can enrich one’s existence, but true success only comes in one form and it enhances all other aspects of life – putting others first.
Selflessness vs. Selfishness – ‘Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.’ – Daniel Dennett (Harvard/Oxford educated philosopher). George Bailey certainly did this and as a result of his lifelong altruism and generosity of spirit almost everyone in Bedford Falls was inspired to assist him in his time of need. So much so George was allocated his own guardian angel to keep him safe and protected him from himself. Life can be very challenging with many obstacles, which can leave us wondering what it all means and how to incorporate the bad with the good. Referring back to Clarence carting Mark Twain from Heaven to Earth, if we could view the trajectory of our lives we would accept that life is like a book, all chapters are necessary and in the end it will all make sense. Just like Tom Sayer seeing his own memorial service, George gets a subliminal bird’s eye view of his non-life. If you don’t believe a person can truly change after seeing how they are perceived when no longer around just think of Alfred Nobel (inventor of dynamite who was mistakenly reported dead in place of his bother Ludvig – when Alfred’s obituary described him as ‘the merchant of death’ he bequeathed nearly his entire sizeable estate to establish the Nobel Prizes). It’s also worth noting that author Mark Twain famously stated, ‘the best way to cheer yourself is to try to cheer someone else up’. George Bailey was indubitably a supportive thoughtful cheerleader for many and as a result viewed as ‘the richest man in town’. Now that’s a legacy worth leaving!
P.S. This film is a timeless classic that I always enjoy watching. It’s a beautiful well-made movie with exceptional acting and a breadth of ethical substance that makes viewers take stock of their own lives, me included. For the most part our journeys don’t often goes as planned. I know mine sure didn’t. Though despite deviated paths, unexpected turns, and ongoing hardships, life really is wonderful in so many ways, which I endeavor to be grateful for every day. Merry Christmas all and Happy 80th Birthday to Dr. Anthony Fauci – a true Xmas gift to science, the world, and mankind. Bless.