Movie critics try to reduce the beloved Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life, to a proverb: “Virtue is its own reward.” “Money is the root of all evil.” “No man is a failure who has friends,” as the movie itself offers.
The truth is, Wonderful Life wouldn’t be a great movie if it proposed simplistic answers to difficult moral quandaries. Instead, the movie introduces viewers to George Bailey, a man with virtues and failings, with grand ambitions and binding obligations. He is both heroic and human.
In his struggles and growth as a character, George teaches the audience about living well. The movie achieves greatness by its compelling and believable portrayal of a virtuous character.
George is an exceptional man. He sees what the other characters in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls do not, and he shares those ideas with his friends and neighbors to make their lives better. George reaches the height of his leadership in the scene where he persuades the townspeople to keep their money in the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan instead of selling out to the cunning and cutthroat Mr. Potter.
“Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening?” he asks the people. “Potter’s isn’t selling. Potter’s buying!” He stands literally head and shoulders above the crowd and appeals to them from a lofty height. George urges his neighbors to see better, more clearly, as he himself can.
The movie establishes George’s virtues through understated yet persistent revelations of George as a visionary. First, his high school principal thanks him for the idea of putting a pool under the gym floor. “Saved us another building!” the man exclaims.
Four years later, on the phone with Sam Wainwright, George proposes an improvement to his friend’s business venture. “You remember that old tool and machinery works? Well, you tell your father he can get that for a song, and all the labor he wants, too. Half the town was thrown out of work when they closed down.” This advice prospers the working people of Bedford Falls and makes his friend into a wealthy man.
George’s sensitivity to people’s needs allows him to discover solutions that others overlook. He volunteers his ideas without expecting compensation or admiration. Although he often explodes with impatience for the “crummy little town” that never offered him opportunities fit for his talents, he never despises his neighbors or succumbs to arrogance. George’s natural virtues position him as a leader in the town.
George is no angel, however: He resists his role as a leader because he prefers the lure of freedom to settling in Bedford Falls. Because he desires to travel, he fails to comprehend Mary’s attraction to 320 Sycamore, a rundown house that she dreams of transforming into a happy home. “That old place? I wouldn’t live in it as a ghost,” George scoffs. He wants to construct new buildings, not invest his time and energy into renovation and repair.
Four years later, sent by his mother to find “the answers” in Mary, he shouts, “I don’t want to get married, ever, to anyone! … I want to do what I want to do.” George rejects marriage because it threatens to confine him at home. At that moment, however, he breaks down and admits his love for Mary. In the next scene, they celebrate their wedding day. Despite his ability to see what others cannot, George needs Mary to reveal the beauties of domesticity to him.
As George moves towards accepting the bond of marriage, he grows into his role as the hero of Bedford Falls. The movie presents his transformation in three stages, played so subtly that the viewer is unaware of the escalation upon first viewing. It is readily apparent that George has three opportunities to travel, and that he chooses to sacrifice all of them. Less obvious is George’s move from yielding before demands to seeking out an opportunity to intervene.
In the first instance, his uncle and brother interrupt his date with Mary with news of a medical emergency. Inevitably, George must give up his travel plans to fulfill his family responsibilities. To keep him away from college, his second opportunity to escape, the executive board must stop George on the way out the door. They plead with him to stay so that he can save his father’s business. This time he has the option to turn down their offer, but he cannot bring himself to refuse.
When the run on the bank happens, though, no one asks George to set aside his honeymoon plans. He and Mary are driving away from Bedford in a taxi cab—but he decides to get out, despite Mary’s pleas, and to run towards the commotion that will tie him down in Bedford once again. With this act, he chooses a home in Bedford Falls over his dreams of adventure.
George’s story defies easy moralizing. He never realizes his dreams, but he helps countless others to achieve theirs. His virtues earn him neither prosperity nor misery. He makes mistakes, and he struggles to discern what is right, but he does not ultimately forsake goodness or doubt truth. The story is realistic in the best sense of the word: true in principle and true to experience.