Blame “George Bailey”, not “It’s a Wonderful Life”

While reading the comments on a shallow NYT article about the 1946 Hollywood movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I was struck by how often the comments complain about one or another alleged flaw in the movie that is just a human failing in the realistically drawn main character “George Bailey“.

For example, Ellis Coyne, who experienced at age 7 the trauma of her father’s suicide, objects

I know this is only a movie but suicide is a reality one carries with them for the rest of their lives, I think the movie completely overlooks this, as a matter of fact, trivializes it.

No, George Bailey trivializes it. He is not seriously contemplating suicide after his tantrum, he’s wallowing in an escape fantasy of suicide. He wishes he’d never been born because he wishes he were free from social responsibilities.

One of the funnier moments in this dark comedy is George’s grandiose fantasy that if he hadn’t been born, his beautiful wife Mary would have ended up an old maid. Yet more than one commentator pointed out the absurdity of that outcome in a way that presupposes the movie were trying to present an accurate portrayal of a world in which George had never been born! — as if the absurdity were almost a “blooper”.

The world — even just little Bedford Falls — would have been more or less the same if George hadn’t been born.  And that reality pricks his vanity.  Yet only a very few commentators venture into that neighborhood, such as “JB”, who writes

In the alternative Bedford Falls, George is most disturbed by one thing: Nobody knows him. It is the erasure of his identify that completely freaks him out, not the changes in the town.

A good example of someone completely buying into George’s self-absorbed viewpoint as the viewpoint of the movie itself is “D.R.S”, who writes

What has bothered me about this movie since the first time I saw it at age 18 is that the resolution is built on a false premise (i.e., that George should be happy with his life because things would have been so much worse if he’d never been born). The real question, for freedom-loving, self-directed individuals, is not what Bedford Falls would have been like if George had never been born, but what it would have been like (and what George’s life would have been like) if he had gone to college and become an architect like he wanted to in the first place, instead of sacrificing his dreams in order to please others. By ignoring that question, the film sim[p]ly reifies the existing social order instead of urging viewers to strive for something better.

What “resolution”?  George learns nothing, except perhaps how to “use your illusion”. But maybe that explains much of the confusion by the commentators.  They expected the movie to be making a point about life, when it was really making a point about a personality type like George and how he sees life.


1 Comment

  1. I love this movie and consider it a great piece of storytelling. It passes my, “Does it grab me every time?” test. If I’m walking by the TV, and it’s on, I will fall into the storytelling.

    As to the failings of George Bailey, I think the critics doth protest to much. George Bailey is not supposed to be the perfect man, he’s supposed to be just like the rest of us. I wonder if they are angry at George because he does that a little to well.

    I have a personal theory that,when we die, we look back on our lives and realize that all the things that worried us such jobs, feuds, that guy who cut us off in traffic, are all pretty meaningless. We find, when we take a step back and look at the big picture, that we spend a lot of time worrying about meaningless things, and that the big things are family, friends, and relationships.

    It’s a Wonderful Life nails these themes. Is George self-absorbed with his dreams? Yes. He’s supposed to be. George’s transformation into the kind of person the critics want to see happens right at the end.

    But then, what would be the point of the movie if he had nowhere to transform from?


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