Posts Tagged ‘George Bailey’

One of the things that I look forward to during the holiday season (now that Thanksgiving has passed and it has officially begun) is when It’s a Wonderful Life plays on television. For those who have never seen the film, which takes place in the 1930s and 40s, here it is in a nutshell. It’s kind of a big nutshell, since this is a three hour movie, but it is sooooo worth it.

Small-town Bedford Falls man, George Bailey, unwillingly inherits the Bailey Building and Loan when his father suddenly dies. Instead of studying to be an architect and seeing the world, George is suddenly trapped in the responsibility of carrying on the family business and taking care of his mother while his younger brother, Harry, is able to go off to college to follow his dreams. George marries a local girl, Mary, and they soon have four children. (“George Bailey lassos stork!”) The going is tough, but for a while, he seems to accept his fate. He’s a family man who becomes a pillar of the community. Because he is excluded from the draft for World War II on account of his being deaf in one ear, he helps out on the home front, leading scrap drives, rubber drives, and air raid drills. All the while, faithful Mary is at his side helping with the business and raising the four children. His nemesis, a miser named Mr. Potter, owns most of the town and has schemed to get the Bailey Building and Loan for years, but George always manages to stay one step ahead of him. Of course, this infuriates Mr. Potter, leaving him a “warped, frustrated, old man”.

One Christmas Eve, just when his brother has received the Congressional Medal of Honor from the President of the United States, George’s Uncle Billy, a lovable alcoholic, takes a deposit of $8000 to the bank. Upon arriving, he can’t resist taunting Mr. Potter with Harry’s success, and mistakenly gives him a newspaper with the money wrapped inside. Once at the bank window, he can’t find the money and panic ensues. Meanwhile, Mr. Potter opens the paper, realizes the mistake, but does nothing to give the money back. At last, it seems, he holds the key to the Baileys’ undoing. Of course, this is also the day that the bank examiner has arrived to go over the books, making the Baileys’ situation seem hopeless.

George certainly thinks so and soon his world is crashing down around his ears. He goes to Mr. Potter for help only to be told that he’s worth more dead than alive. He gets drunk and drives (this is the 1940s, remember) to a high bridge over a river and contemplates jumping in to end it all. At the last minute, an angel (second class) named Clarence jumps in the churning water himself, forcing George to rescue him and thereby saving himself. Clarence is trying to earn his wings and sees George as the perfect way to do it. In order to prove to George that his life means something, Clarence, with permission from Heaven, grants George the gift of being able to see what the world would be like if he had never been born. George returns to town to find out that Bedford Falls is now Potterville. Strip clubs, gambling dens, and chaos now reign in the formerly family-friendly streets. No one knows who George is, including his wife, Mary who is now a spinster librarian. (Why are librarians always spinsters in old movies?) Even George’s own mother has no idea who he is and turns him away. By the time George understands what an impact he has made on so many people, Clarence in tow, he is desperate for his old life back. He manages to cause a scene in town and ends up being shot at before running back to the bridge and praying for God to make him live again. Miraculously, he does, everyone knows him, and he’s soon back at home where the bank examiner and the sheriff are waiting to arrest him for Uncle Billy’s mistake. George is so happy at being back that he doesn’t care. Moments later, the house is flooded with townspeople who George has helped over the years, all contributing money to make up for that $8000 deficit, including the sour-puss bank examiner, and telling George exactly what he means to them. To top it all off, Harry-the-war-hero comes in, having flown through a snowstorm to get there and declares his brother, George, “the richest man in town”, followed by everyone singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Auld Lang Syne”. During the excitement of it all, a bell ornament on the Christmas tree rings and George and Mary’s daughter, Zuzu, says, “Look, Daddy! Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel get his wings!”, which means that Clarence has accomplished his goal of earning his wings, thorough George. Mr. Potter’s is defeated yet again and tears ensue, as always.

Of course there’s much more to it, a lot that I’ve left out, but you’ll have to watch the movie for that. I saw bits and pieces of it growing up, but couldn’t be bothered to sit through the whole thing until after I attended an It’s a Wonderful Life-themed Christmas party at my boss’s house, almost twenty years ago. I remember being floored, absolutely floored by the message. If you follow this blog, you know that I struggle with self-image and self-esteem, just like many other people. There have been times in my life when I have thought that it would have been better if I had never been born, especially after I make a wrong choice that ends up hurting someone, as we all do from time to time. When I feel that way, a quote from Clarence always hits home. “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

It’s very true, akin to the butterfly effect. Think about it. What would the world be like if you had never been born, if you received the George Bailey gift and had the opportunity to see the world as he did? What seemingly small events in your life would have never happened, perhaps changing the world for the worse, or preventing a particularly wonderful thing from happening?

If you have children, they wouldn’t exist. Wow. Let that sink in for a minute. You would not be a child of your parents. Would that have changed their lives in some way? Most definitely. Parents rearrange their entire lives, usually for the better, for their kids and without you, what track might they have taken? Have you helped anyone along the way? Did you let someone in your lane during heavy traffic? Maybe that person arrived on time for an appointment that changed his or her life. Did you make a point to be kind to someone? Maybe that made all the difference in that person’s day and enabled them to pass kindness on to others who needed it. Our lives are so very meshed with countless others, many that we don’t even realize and never will, which is the message, and the beauty, of the film. This isn’t a film about rich, powerful, or beautiful people, it’s about us, the normal everyday folks who struggle with lost dreams and self-doubt all the time.

When it begins to dawn on George that he is, indeed, in a world where he was never born, Clarence tells him that he has been given a wonderful gift, a chance to see what the world would be like without him. George sees all of the people in his life that he has touched and what would have happened had he not been there as a husband, an understanding loan manager, a loving son, a supportive brother. It shows us that no matter how small or insignificant we feel, especially when we compare ourselves to our friends and relatives that appear to lead big, exciting lives (Sam Wainwright, Harry Bailey), we do make a difference, especially to the people who matter most. It’s a message that sometimes gets lost in the crush of ambition.

Do yourself a favor this Christmas season; watch it’s a Wonderful Life in its entirety, whether it’s on television or downloaded from Netflix. Be open to the message. Have the tissues ready. Merry Christmas.

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