Dateline: 30 November 2006
Revised: December 2015
Revised: December 2015
One of my family’s Christmas holiday traditions is to watch the 1946 Frank Capra movie It’s a Wonderful Life. We have done this for many years. I suspect most of you who read this are familiar with the movie. So I won’t introduce it, but I do want to make a few observations.
One of the things I love about the movie is, of course, the overriding message that the life of one common man (or woman), has the power to positively influence so many other people’s lives. Which is the same as saying that one life can change the world.
When I think of that theme, my grandmother, Mary Kimball, comes to mind. I suspect you can also think of people who have, by their influence in your life, made a big difference—hopefully for good. As the movie points out, there are also people, like Mr. Potter (the “meanest man in the county”) who can, through the life they lead, influence the lives of others in a negative way.
George Bailey (the central character of the movie) is a frustrated man because of his lack of personal achievement. From a young age, he dreamed big dreams. He wanted to travel the world, experience foreign cultures, go to college, become an engineer, and build great things. Staying in his little home town of Bedford Falls was clearly not something he wanted to do.
But those big dreams were never realized. It isn’t that George didn’t have the capability and opportunity to achieve his dreams. The “problem” is that, time after time, he sacrificially puts the welfare of others before his own self interests. He is a man compelled by responsibility and compassion for his family and friends. The situations he faces in life indicate that Providence has other, less grandiose, but no less important, plans for George Bailey.
George supports his family and widowed mother on a modest salary of $45 a week. His family lives in the old, rundown, Granville house. The house is in better shape than it was when he and his new wife, Mary, spent a rainy honeymoon night there. But it is still in disrepair, as indicated by the top to the staircase’s newel post that annoyingly comes off in George’s hand every time he walks up the stairs.
Seeing the personal frustration and lack of financial success in George's life, the rich and evil Mr. Potter offers George much more money if he will come to work for him. The offer is powerfully tempting but George's conscience compels him to refuse. He remains true to his principles—to the responsibilities he has beyond fulfilling his own selfish desires.
George is not an overtly Christian man. But he clearly acts like a Christian man. And as a Christian man, we find George battling not only his own worldly desires, but evil itself as personified by the wealthy Mr. Potter. While George is the epitome of self-sacrifice, and generosity, Potter is the epitome of selfishness and greed. It is George alone who stands in the way of Potter's consuming quest to dominate and exploit the working class citizens of Bedford Falls.
Likewise, It's a Wonderful Life is not an overtly Christian movie. Some of the theological assumptions are a bit kooky ("every time a bell rings, and angel gets his wings"). But there is an unmistakably clear implied acknowledgement of God's sovereignty and lordship over the affairs of all creation, including men and angels.
Another part of the movie worth mentioning is that George’s father battled the nefarious Potter for many years before he unexpectedly died. Then, when his father is gone, George steps into his shoes. George Bailey honored his father and his father’s vision by embracing his father's principles and carrying on his work. From a Christian viewpoint, this is the embodiment of the 5th Commandment, found in Exodus 20.
George Bailey’s life and work revolve around the community in which he lives. The closeness of his community stands in stark contrast to the average community in America today—some seventy to eighty years after the time setting of the movie. The destruction of community was well underway back then as the corporate-industrial machine steadily restructured our culture to suit its Potter-like purposes. But many small towns were still close communities.
The whole concept of community, of people not only knowing each other, but living and working in close proximity (often for generations), sharing common values and beliefs, and caring for each other, appeals to deep yearnings in the human heart. Indeed, we were created to live in community and when it isn’t happening, our lives are less fulfilled. That being the case,when we see it played out in this wonderful movie, especially in the end, it is a joyful and emotional experience.
And then there is Mary. George’s wife, Mary, is far from a modern woman. She has no desire to strike out on her own and be an independent woman. She isn’t interested in seeing the world or pursuing a career. Her great desire is for home and family. Mary serves as a helpmeet to her husband (another Christian theme) and a mother to her children. She does not complain about the drafty old Granville house—she works to make it a home, a blessed place for her family. Mary is a picture of every godly mother who loves her family by sacrificially giving to them of her time and attention.
George Bailey is, indeed, a blessed man. But for most of the movie he just doesn’t see it. Though his life is full of simple joys, he is continually frustrated, disappointed, and discontented. His childhood friend, Sam Wainright (Hee Haw!) has achieved great material success in the plastics business. George’s kid brother Harry has achieved fame in college football, then as a war hero. But George struggles along in relative obscurity.
George is, however, far from a failure in life and, before the movie is over, he comes to realize that. In fact, at the end of the movie, we can see that, in many ways, George is more of a success than those like Sam Wainright, who went out into the big world and "made something of themselves."
I assume you know how the movie plays out. But if you have never seen this movie, please do not let this Christmas season pass without watching It’s A Wonderful Life
I invite you to check out my Hardest "It's a Wonderful Life" Trivia Quiz in the World