There’s been much written about the cultural impact of It’s a Wonderful Life, much written about how, when America makes its yearly visit to Bedford Falls each Christmas Eve, many people are surprised at how dark its view of the world is.
What’s often forgotten, too, is just how short the nightmare scenario of Potterville is. You remember Clarence Oddbody’s mission from the heavens to protect George Bailey, but most of the film is actually spent just looking back at George’s life, chapter by chapter, as Joseph shows Clarence the number of times George has put his own needs behind those of the community or his family. What makes the glimpse of Potterville so terrifying for George and for the audience then is the knowledge that everything in Bedford Falls, the model of small town America, hangs by a thread.
For a while, in my twenties, I got suckered in by the notion that some critics and cultural observers put out into the world that Potterville would be where they wanted to live. It was fun they said. There’s dancing, gambling and the kind of nightlife that you might be looking for when you’re that age. What I realized, though – and perhaps this was because I lived in the kinds of small towns that Bedford Falls is supposed to stand in for – is that I got to see the actions of the George Baileys of the world as they lived their day-to-day lives. George isn’t a saint. But Frank Capra doesn’t treat him like one. He’s maybe not as patient a father as you’d like to see. He does resent the Sam Wainwrights of the world making it out and making fortunes while he gets to stay behind. In other words, he carries around the things all of us do in our lives. And yet, he also does the things that many of us do every day, in a positive sense. All of us would have not delivered that medicine that Mr. Gower mistakenly poisoned. All of us would hope to do the right thing and help our families during times of grief.
And Potterville, ultimately, is kind of a shell. You see the “fun” nights, but those fun nights see people like Violet arrested, and show dark shadows of men like Ernie and Bert. Not to mention the fate of Mary.
Donna Reed has always been the unsung hero of the movie to me. Mary’s the one who keeps George going while he “fights the war in Bedford Falls.” For all the charged love scenes ever put on film, there’s not one that provides the charge of George and Mary on the phone with Sam Wainwright, as George slowly comes to understand the way he really feels about Mary. The kisses they share, the kisses that strike fear into her mother, are the most passionate because they seem to come from such an understandable place.
It’s this scene, along with the closing one, that makes It’s a Wonderful Life my favorite holiday film. The sense of community you find in that last scene, the way that so many of those characters recognize the difference George has made in their lives, makes all of us, I think, look for those people in our own lives. It’s why, frankly, when Harry Bailey arrives, and announces a toast to his older brother, things tend to get a tad smoky in whatever room I’m in.
Editor’s Note: From the Working Author family to yours, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.