Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. – Proverbs 13:12
You need to see It’s A Wonderful Life and you need to see it immediately. It’s difficult for me to understand how an American citizen can successfully dodge this most classic of films. What heroic lengths one must go to avoid their television during the Christmas season. This is a film that receives near universal praise from the viewing public, and is a staple of the American Christmas tradition. Every year, NBC ritualistically plays It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve night to be shared by all in the land. If you haven’t seen it, do so at your nearest convenience and don’t bother reading any further.
Today I’m writing to my old Building & Loan pals about a subject that I personally haven’t seen addressed in my perusing of internet articles and discussion boards. Everyone knows that George Bailey wanted to leave Bedford Falls to see the world. Walking home after the high school dance George says to Mary:
I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…
Of course, we know that George never does any of those things. And as far as we’re told, George never even leaves town. It’s like he’s living his own version of The Truman Show where forces have worked to keep him from stepping foot outside the borders of his little bubble. A man with strong desires to move up and out from his place of origin is destined to stay put indefinitely. How can this be? If George Bailey wants out so badly, what’s preventing him from getting his wish? Time and time again he has an opportunity to leave, but extenuating circumstances seem to beat him back like a pebble getting pushed onto shore by relentless crashing waves. Poor George, right? Well, maybe not. And that is what I want to talk about. Did George Bailey have to stay in Bedford Falls, and what do his actions reveal about the deeper desires of his heart?
The way I see it, there are 7 critical moments where George could have chosen a different path, allowing him to leave town to pursue his dreams. I’ll cover them quickly for you.
- Pa Bailey’s Death: When George’s father dies he chooses to forgo a trip to Europe in favor of taking care of his father’s business.
- Potter Moves to Dissolve the Building & Loan: Mr. Potter tries to convince the board that Bedford Falls no longer needs the B&L. George gives an impassioned speech about his father’s character and the reasons why his fellow citizens need the B&L to continue. The board decides that if George stays on they will keep the business alive. George chooses to give up college and lets his brother Harry go in his stead.
- Harry Gets Married & Breaks His Promise: When Harry returns from college, George learns that he has a wife and a new career. Unfortunately, the plan was that Harry would take over for George, giving him the chance to get an education and leave Bedford Falls. George chooses not to make a fuss and, though we don’t see the exchange, it appears that he doesn’t hold Harry to his original agreement.
- The Ground Floor in Plastics: This one is easily overshadowed by the loving embrace that follows, but when Sam Wainwright offers George an opportunity to get in on plastics, he effectively misses an opportunity to make a fortune. Sam even acknowledges that George turned him down in a later scene for the sake of sticking by the B&L.
- George Marries Mary: Now, this might be somewhat controversial for lovers of the film, but I see George’s marriage as another choice that results in him staying in town. Consider how fiercely he tries to resist his attraction to her. He knows that marrying Mary is another tie to Bedford Falls and another step away from the free life he wanted to live.
- The Bank Run: During the Great Depression, the citizens of Bedford Falls panic and rush to the bank to withdraw their funds. Those who have money at the B&L want George to give them everything they have, but George reminds them that it doesn’t work that way. He sacrifices his honeymoon and $2,000 of his own money to keep the B&L open. He could have ignored it all and went on his honeymoon, or he could have let the B&L collapse. But he fought to keep it open, choosing to stay tied down to it.
- Potter Offers George A Job: If you can’t beat ’em join ’em. Mr. Potter realizes that he would be better off paying George Bailey a fortune (about $300,000 a year in today’s money) than competing with him any longer. George quickly realizes that he can’t accept this deal with the Devil and storms out of the building. He chooses to stay with the B&L, giving up his last chance to be a rich world traveler.
You could look at all of these things as external factors that prevent George from pursuing his dreams, but at the end of the day it’s critical to realize that George made a choice at every critical juncture. If he wanted to get out more than anything else he would have left to visit Europe after attending his father’s funeral. Even if he stayed a while, he could have let the board dissolve the B&L. He could have fought with Harry to keep him in Bedford Falls, and so on and so forth. Yet, George Bailey stays in a town he wants to leave and works at a job that robs him of his dreams. There must be something greater below the surface.
Above all else, George Bailey is driven by the love he has for his father. Consider every major choice he makes. Every choice he makes reflects a desire to uphold his father’s “high ideals” and image. His whole life plays out in his shadow. He has the same job, co-workers, passion to serve his community, and even the same enemy in Mr. Potter. George wants to live his own life, but he ends up living his father’s life. He lives for his father. Before facing the frightened and angry crowd, George takes a moment to look at his father’s picture. Underneath it says, “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” This is the core belief of George’s father, and the core belief that George adopts throughout the film.
The reason George almost kills himself is that he has lived according to his father’s ideals without experiencing the gratification promised by them. George has given himself away: his dreams, his money, his pride. But when he is faced with jail-time and scandal and ruin, he looks back at a life lived for others as a complete waste. Not only has he wasted his life, he has come to believe that his father was wrong. Perhaps that terrible belief, the belief that his father was a fool who led him to a life of ruin, is what really made him want to jump into that icy water. The man who taught him right from wrong becomes unreliable. Mr. Potter, who tells George that he’s worth more dead than alive, now has more credibility. Mr. Potter tells George what he already fears, that his life of sacrifice for the benefit of others was in vain. All evidence points to the falsehood that his father now represents.
If not for divine intervention, George would have killed himself, and Mr. Potter would have viewed the whole affair as an affirmation of his warped worldview. The true turning point comes when George turns to another father for help.
Clarence, a guardian angel, is sent to show him the value of his life by giving him a glimpse of what the world would be like without him. George is brought to a point where he desperately wants to live again, and God gives George his life back, but not as it was before. All of the people that he sacrificed for, all of the hope deferred to give hope to others finally comes back in a joyous celebration of George’s worth within the community. Now it’s clear that his life was not a waste, and that his father is worthy of all the love and respect George lived to give.
Within all of us is this conflict between our desires and beliefs. George wanted to see the world and do great big things, but his beliefs about his father and the work he did caused George to deny his dreams. He served his community through the Building & Loan, all the while keeping Mr. Potter from harming the town. When it appeared that he had denied himself for no good reason, George despaired at the thought of a wasted life lived in the shadow of a fool. But the reality of God, the ultimate source of the meaning both George and his father lived for, redeemed the whole story. The focal point of George Bailey’s life is his father, and the linchpin of It’s A Wonderful Life is God the Father.
So Merry Christmas you wonderful old Building & Loan!