This Christmas, Celebrate Normalcy

This Christmas season, you will probably watch It’s a Wonderful Life with your family. On its face, Frank Capra’s film seems especially pertinent for saintly types—those who need to be reminded just how wonderful they are to the people around them, if only they would open their eyes.

But if Capra’s film was meant only for saints, then it would have lost the interest of sinners long ago. It’s a Wonderful Life owes its continued success to something far deeper, more profound, than the mere praise of Good Samaritans, which although elevating, is far too obvious and boring. And the sacrificial heroism of the movie’s hero, George Bailey, is only part of the story.

George Bailey starts the film as a big dreamer who aspires to leave his “crummy little town,” travel the world, and eventually become an architect. As a young boy, George rudely proclaims to his future spouse, Mary, that he wants a  “whole harem of wives.” He won’t settle for anything less!

But God has other plans.

Before George leaves Bedford Falls, his father perishes from a stroke, demanding he relinquish his ambitions and manage the “crappy” Building and Loans bank. George skips school to send his brother instead. And, when his brother returns with a new bride, it dawns him that he will never get a chance to leave Bedford Falls.

At this point, George calls on Mary to propose to her, who has loved him all of her life. What would be a distinctly happy moment in most people’s lives turns into George acting like a petty jerk, angrily insisting he will never marry or settle for anyone but himself:

“Now, you listen to me! I don't want any plastics! I don't want any ground floors, and I don't want to get married—ever—to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do. And you're... and you’re…”

After marriage, the Baileys move into a “drafty old house” which had always been Mary’s dream to rebuild. For years, George doesn’t have a kind word for the house or her efforts to re-make it.

He continues to manage the impecunious Building and Loans. He comes home to his family day in, day out, with bags under his eyes, weary from “the war of Bedford Falls.” He watches as his friends and family find success in New York, becoming careerists and millionaires.

10 years later, George’s “stupid old fool” of an uncle misplaces $8,000, putting the family business in dire straights. George goes to his family, insults his wife and her efforts to remake the home, decries having so many kids, violently punches walls, and yells at his daughter to stop playing Christmas music. He then storms out of the house, driving to a bridge to commit suicide. His life insurance policy, he figures, makes him “worth more dead than alive.” The rest, we know, is history.

In almost every scene, George comes off as kind of an ass, but a heroic ass who does the right thing in spite of himself and what he wants. George is also ill-equipped to deal with the really tough stuff of life. After all, where would he be without a miraculous intervention from the angel Clarence? Sometimes, when I re-watch the film, I find myself asking why we persist in our love for him.

We love George because his character provides a great insight into normalcy. Most people lead lives that they find unfulfilling. Every day, a culture that worships careerists and billionaires makes us feel unfairly sentenced to a life of mediocrity. All the while, an inner-monologue of vanity and pride fosters contempt and world-weariness; one big disaster could have some of us contemplating if it’s all worth it.

George gives a gift we desperately need: a sense of reward for good things we may not entirely deserve credit for, but that we nonetheless earned.

In George, we all see that life will continue to be wonderful, even when we fail to notice its beauty and its goodness—which is sadly a lot of the time. And although George isn’t perfect, he is good, and is so in spite of his lesser qualities. That is something to celebrate.

CultureJackson YenorComment