George Bailey (James Stewart) has always put the needs of his neighbors’ and town before his own. He dreams of traveling the world, but has always had to put those dreams aside in order to run the town’s building and loan company that his father founded. Without that resource, the town would be taken over by Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a wealthy businessman who thinks nothing kicking the poor out of their homes. When George’s uncle misplaces a large sum of money, Mr. Potter finally has the leverage to take over the town of Bedford Falls. George is at a loss of what to do, and feels that he is better off to his family and friends dead than alive, because his life insurance policy could make up for some of the lost money. He is then shown how much he has changed the lives of his family and friends, by an angel in need of his wings.
It’s a Wonderful Life was not a holiday staple of my childhood and I didn’t see it until I was in my teens. I knew the general premise because every show on television has done a parody episode. However, I was not expecting George Bailey’s life to suck so much. The guy never got a freaking break! Every milestone was marred by some sort of tragedy. He watches all his friends move on to bigger, better things while he’s trapped in a job he never wanted. It’s like the residents of Bedford Falls got together to systematically kill every one of George’s dreams. No wonder he’s on edge! Until the happy ending, his frustration is a good example of why you can’t live your life for other people.
A lot of people make a big deal about how in the alternative Bedford Falls (aka Pottersville), one of the most horrifying things George encounters is his wife Mary (Donna Reed), who has become a bookish spinster in his absence. Many complain that it’s sexist to suggest that never getting married is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a woman. However, I always had a different take on it. While I am a firm believer that being single is better than being in a bad relationship, I it would be very sad to imagine a world where someone you care about never knew love. Although that doesn’t completely explain what happened to her eyesight.
The element of the movie that always made me the most frustrated was Uncle Billy complete uselessness. I wonder what Clarence would have showed Uncle Billy if he was the one contemplating jumping off the bridge. He not only was the one who lost the money that George needed, he couldn’t even remember how he could have possibly misplaced it. Really, if someone had made the executive decision to ease Uncle Billy out of the business early on, a lot of trouble could have been avoided. The idea that he was allowed to be handling large sums of money is mindboggling. I sadly am left wondering if anything is truly fixed. Will George’s frustrations bubble over again one day? Will Uncle Billy’s bumbling lead to another disaster for the Building & Loan?
While there are many reasons this film is a classic, there’s also many reasons this movie would never be made today. It’s very much a film of its time and I think that’s why it remains a holiday staple. I think when we think of Christmas, we mentally all go back to a town like Bedford Falls, where friendship is worth more than gold.