Meet George Bailey
Part One : Thoughts on one of my favorite movies of all time.
I’m going to share with you the plot of a movie, so if you haven’t seen it, I apologize. The movie in question, however, was first released in 1946, so if you haven’t seen it yet…well...I’m sorry.
I have watched It’s a Wonderful Life (directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed) sometime between Christmas and early January nearly every year since I was a child and still to this day the closing scene causes a single solitary tear to roll down my cheek — every…single…time.
In this story, I will provide an overview and a few insights into Wonderful Life that I find particularly meaningful. In the follow-up article, I will look at the movie through the lens of James 4:13-5:6.
So, my friends, without any further ado, let me introduce you to George….George Bailey. On Christmas Eve 1945, in Bedford Falls, New York, George Bailey is contemplating suicide. On the verge of bankruptcy, he is about to be swallowed up by the misery, hardened, and corrupt Mr. Potter, the man who owns nearly everything in town, except for George’s small Bailey Brothers Building and Loan business.
Mr. Potter—no relation to Harry, as far as I know—is the very image of evil, oppression, corruption, and rotten wealth. People who work for Potter and those who live in his over-priced housing projects (slums, we are told) live difficult lives of over-work, overwhelming financial burden, and little happiness.
By contrast, the Bailey Brother Building and Loan offers people the opportunity to work hard, save their money, and build a house they can afford, in which they can raise their family. And this makes Mr. Potter very, very angry. He would like nothing more than squash George Bailey under his thumb and be done with the Bailey family.
Although Geroge has it in him not to bow down to Mr. Potter, we quickly learn that living in Bedford Falls and operating the Bailey Brothers Building and Load was NOT the plan that George Bailey has for his life. At one point he says to Mary, before she becomes his wife—
“I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m going to see the world! Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then I’m coming back here and go to college and see what they know…and then I’m going to build things. I’m gonna build air fields. I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”
George’s big decision
George Bailey had dreams….BIG dreams. After high school, he would work for four years to earn money for his big worldwide adventure. When George leaves town, the plan is for his little brother Harry to take his place at the Building and Loan and work for four years before he goes on to college.
Then, tragically, on the night of Harry’s high school graduation, George’s father dies suddenly from a stroke. George cancels his trip to help the family but plans to leave as soon as everything is in order.
At the board meeting of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, Mr. Potter selfishly offers to buy out the Building and Loan, for a good price—a price would have easily paid for George’s worldwide adventure and more. In a moment of frustration and inspiration, George addresses Mr. Potter—
“Neither you nor anybody else can say anything against [my father’s] character…he never once thought of himself…But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter.
And what's wrong with that?
Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community...
Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be!”
In the end, the Building and Loan board agrees to refuse Potter’s offer, but only if George will agree to stay on as the manager and CEO. In true movie form, the frame freezes for a moment as George realizes the weight of the moment and the decision he must make.
Have you ever had a moment like that—when the world seems to stand still and the weight of a decision almost seems to crush you? If you haven’t had an experience like this yet, just wait…you will.
Will George follow his dreams and plans? Or will stay and follow in his fathers’ footsteps, continuing to carry out his father’s vision, and continuing to stand against the evil that is Mr. Potter?
Just a couple of hours before his father’s death, George had told his father that the Building and Loan was just too small of a thing for him to give his life. He had no desire to pinch pennies in his father's shabby little office. He was destined for BIG things…GREAT things!
Yet, in the moment of decision, George cancels his trip, gives his college money to Harry, and agrees to stay and continue his father’s business; the business that, as a young man, he despised, wanting no part of it. Sometimes staying is far more difficult than going. And sometimes the right decision has nothing to do with what we want. Sometimes, perhaps, living our “best life” is not really what is best.
George watches his brother succeed
Harry goes to college and becomes a football star.
George marries a childhood sweetheart, Mary, and stays in Bedford Falls.
Harry marries a woman from the big city whose father offers him a high-paying job in research and development; a job that will make him rich and allow him to travel the world.
George and Mary have four children and struggle to make ends meet.
Harry goes to war as an Air Force pilot and wins a medal of honor for saving the lives of hundreds on a transport ship.
George can’t go to war due to a bad ear from the time he saved Harry from drowning in a frozen lake as a child. So George is stuck organizing paper drives, tire drives, and acting as air warden in Bedford Falls.
George’s friends all go on to do big and shiny things, make money, travel the world—all the things George dreamed of doing.
George stays in Bedford Falls, daily struggling against Mr. Potter. He builds small, modest homes for people who may or may not ever be able to fully pay him back. George wonders why Mary ever married someone like him, the man who never did anything important or noteworthy.
Mr. Potter’s plan to stop George
All this time Mr. Potter is scheming for a way to destroy George Bailey. A few days before Christmas Eve 1945, Mr. Potter offers George a job with a good salary and the opportunity to travel. It’s an ingenious plan—distract George from all the good he is doing by offering to him something he has always wanted.
George nearly jumps at the chance, but then sees the plan for what it is. Furious, Mr. Potter has had enough. He takes advantage of the carelessness of one of George’s employees and steals $8000 from the Building and Loan. When George can’t make his payment to the bank, Mr. Potter issues a warrant for the arrest of George Bailey on grounds of embezzlement and fraud.
And here we find George on that bridge on Christmas Eve, ready to throw himself into the freezing waters. And just before he does, Clarence, a rather homely angel from heaven, jumps into the river first. George, again, does the right thing by saving Clarence from drowning.
Quick note about angels: I’m not going to discuss the topic of guardian angels here, but I can say with confidence that there is no Biblical basis for the idea that “every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings…sorry if I ruined that for you. In the movie, however, Clarence is trying to earn his wings…he’s been waiting 293 years for the opportunity].
Clarence’s plan to help George
Clarence’s solution to help George is the allow George to see what the world would have been like had he not been born. In this vision, or dream, or alternate reality…
Because George had never been born, when his father died Mr. Potter took over the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, giving him ownership of the entire town. As a result, Bedford Falls becomes a sin-laden town filled with bars, prostitutes, and violence.
George’s wife, Mary, never marries.
The people who lived in the homes he had built are out of work, living Mr. Potter’s slums or on the street.
Zuzu’s petals are nowhere to be found.
When George walks through the cemetery he sees his brother Harry’s tombstone, showing that he had died at age 9, when he fell through the ice at the lake.
When George refuses to believe that his brother is dead, Clarence responds:
Clarence: Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.
George: That's a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport [ship].
Clarence: Every man on that transport [ship] died. Harry wasn't there to save them because you weren't there to save Harry. You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?
George begs for his life back
George begs Clarence for his life back—he wants to live again! When he returns home he finds his children and his wife, and he realizes that Mary had told everyone she knows about that $8000 that is missing. Shortly thereafter, townspeople begin flooding into their home, emptying their pockets, wallets, coffee can savings, and even the jukebox to raise the missing $8000.
They know George, they like George, they trust George, and they love George. They know the time and energy he has put into them, and into their homes, and into their town. They know he loves them by the way he has lived his life...and they love him for it.
The richest man in town
Finally—and this is the part that brings a tear every year, the reason I sit through the movie year after year—in the closing minutes of the movie, we learn that Harry Bailey, George’s little brother, has cut short his dinner with the President of the United States, to fly in a blizzard back to Bedford Falls, to come and see his brother in his time of need.
He comes into the home covered in snow, grabs a glass, and makes a toast—
Harry, who has all the big and shiny things in life…
Harry, the war hero who eats meals with the President…
Harry, who benefitted from his big brother’s decision to stay…
Harry, whose name everyone knows, whose name is the headline of the local newspaper…
Harry who did all the things that George never got to do…
Harry lifts his glass to his brother and says…
“To my big brother, George, the richest man in town!”
[Part Two coming in 2 days]