Monday, December 19, 2011

Still a Wonderful Life

It’s funny how you can watch the same movie a zillion times and still find yourself caught up in it. Last night when my family sat down for our annual watching of It’s a Wonderful Life, I was choked up right on schedule.

In the first minute when one of the little kids prays: “please help my daddy,” I was fighting off tears.

(I’m assuming everyone on the planet knows the gist of this story—an angel visits suicidal George Bailey and shows him what the world would be like if he had never been born.)

Annually, I gasp when Mr. Gower, the grief-stricken druggist, boxes George’s ears. I root for George to leave town and follow his dreams. I tear up when he realizes he loves Mary and won't be going anywhere. I bite my nails when goofball Uncle Billy misplaces the eight thousand dollars. I wince when George loses his temper with his kids on Christmas Eve.

And I cheer when he finds Zuzu’s petals in his pocket and runs around Bedford Falls like a lunatic shouting “Yay!”

It’s a great movie. When our kids were little, my husband and I used to force them to watch it with us. We still tease our daughter for her reaction when she was four years old. At the end, as everyone praises George, and Harry gives his toast—“to my big brother George, the richest man in town”—our daughter remarked: “but what about that old guy in the wheelchair?”

Here’s the thing about watching a movie a zillion times: you notice details you didn't catch the first few times around. Like how brother Harry pleads with his parents to let him drink gin at his graduation party. (They say no.) And how Mr. Potter calls the poor people in town "riff raff" and “garlic eaters.”

And did you catch a glimpse of that human skull on Mr. Potter’s desk?

I once read a review of the movie that said the story is really about the frustration and resentment involved when people realize that their childhood dreams will never come true. I used to see it this way too. I mean who doesn’t feel George’s pain as year after year he sacrifices his own plans and instead helps out his father, and then his brother, and then his town?

He watches doofy "HeeHaw" Sam Wainwright make it big in the city. Younger brother Harry becomes a football star and a war hero, while George stays behind in “crummy little” Bedford Falls.

It’s all so unfair. George is such a good guy. You really want him to get what he deserves. The fancy education. The opportunity to travel the world. A house that’s not drafty. Furs and jewelry for his wife Mary.

But that review is wrong.

The next time you watch the movie, pay close attention to the scene where Mr. Potter offers George his dream job. The silver skull gleams on the desk and a picture of Mr. Potter glares down from the wall, but for the moment Mr. Potter is all smiley, offering George a cigar and promising him everything his heart desires: more money than he can dream of (Twenty thousand dollars a year, instead of two thousand), the chance to travel to New York City and Europe, the ability to buy his lovely wife anything she wants.

All George has to do is shut down the Building and Loan, his family business.

You can see George considering the offer, calculating the enormous sum of money and picturing Mary in furs—just like Sam Wainwright’s wife. He shakes Mr. Potter’s hand and suddenly he freezes.

I wonder every year when I watch this part, what IS it that George feels when he touches Mr. Potter’s hand? Because at that moment, George lets go and wipes his own hand on his coat and angrily says no to everything.

Mr. Potter is greed and power and cruelty personified. Making a deal with him would be like selling your soul to the devil. And nothing is worth that, George instinctively realizes.

The message at the end of the movie, that George had a wonderful life because he made a real difference in the lives of others, is simple and practically a cliché, but at the same time it’s so easy to forget. Especially at this time of year when we are bombarded with messages to buy and spend and want want want.

So stop focusing on the fact that half of the stuff in your house is broken and you never had a chance to take a trip to Rome and once upon a time you dreamed you'd make a million dollars.

Instead, remember this: the town you live in isn’t crummy. A problem that can be solved with money is no problem at all.

And there are people who love you, who will willingly sit with you in your drafty den to watch a movie you’ve all seen a million times.



  1. How insightful you are, my Dear. You make me want to watch the movie again - for the nth time. What a powerful lesson about the importance of friends and family - and the real meaning of Christmas - and the old trite expression, "Money isn't everything". Thanks for sharing and bringing the message home again for me.

    1. Thanks, Mom, for always being my biggest fan.

    2. Um. I am assuming this is my mom.

    3. "Money isn't everything" -

      Comes in pretty handy down here bub.

  2. Jody, I hav enticed that skull. This is the beat moment in the movie from my POV. Our traditions the George C.Scott CHRISTMAS CAROL. Every year after we put up the tree. It reminds us of the true spirit of Christmas. Merry Christmas to you and your family in C'bus.

  3. Thanks, Kathy, and Merry Christmas to you too!

  4. My wife and I always watch it every year as well. Probably my favorite movie. My patents raised me on black and white movies. I love them. I too noticed the skull and actually just Googled it for fun and found this page. I assume he had it on his desk as an intimidation tactic or as a "killer" business man he had it on his desk as a novelty item to massage his own ego. Also I've always noticed when George sits down he is almost eye level with with Mr. Potter, yet another intimidation tactic as Potter can remain on the high grounds during every transaction. We even hear Potter tell a Congressman to wait on him in the movie. I think I would describe George as having felt a bit of his soul slipping away after shaking Potters hand as he is the devil. Sell your morality and integrity for material things George... Isn't that what the devil would want? He quickly realizes they're just things and his wife is happy with him as her husband and her children, deep down George knows theyre just "things" and family and the building and loan that helps families is what is moral and right. To deal with potter sells out humanity. Just my thoughts as I too have spent time pondering and analyzing this movie. I enjoyed your blog.

  5. Correction - it was supposed to day when George sits down he's eye level with the edge of potters desk. A real I'm beneath this powerful man type of set up.

  6. Great insight into one of the Best Movies ever made. Interesting how topics & life in general in the film are still the same today. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  7. As an Actor, I would be Lucky to be in a movie like that.