It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Dir. Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, etc.

This is my favorite film of all-time. Period. No film before or since–including over 900 films in the past six years (some of which will probably enter my top ten list)–has come close to supplanting it. Objectively, I think it’s a very good film. The direction I think is underrated. The performances are one of a kind, particularly Jimmy Stewart (I can’t think of anyone that could have pulled off the role as convincingly) and Barrymore, as one of the great villians of all-time. But I don’t think the film is the greatest of all-time, not in an objective sense. Therefore, my rating is based on personal reasons more than objective ones. No other film resonates so deeply with me. Certain films, novels, music, artwork, etc. sometimes serve as a “code” to a person’s soul. This would definitely be at the top of that list for me.

Before I go into my own personal reflections about the film, let me say a few words. For those of you who haven’t seen it, go see it. See it just to understand what the big deal is about this film. But I think most of you will at least like it a little. One other thing. The following comments by me will have major spoilers.

The Essential Question in Life
There are several reasons this film would be at the top of list of “code to my soul” films. First of all, the conflict that George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), the main character, wrestles with–sacrificing one’s life to benefit everyone else’s; doing the right thing at the expense of one’s own life–is a theme that resonates deeply with me. (I’ll be interested in any story or film where the main character faces a similar dilemma.) To me, this is one of the most important questions in my (or anyone’s) life: Will I be able do the right thing even if it means giving up the things I love most–giving up my life, either figurartively or literally? This falls in line with Jesus’ teaching that unless a grain of wheat dies it cannot bear much fruit; if we give up our lives we will find it; if we try to keep it, we will lose it. This has been the most challenging question in my life, challenging because it’s so important and so difficult. The first half of the film involves George wrestling with this issue.

In the film, George Bailey (Stewart) wants to leave his small town, see the world (something he’s always wanted to do) and become a great architect. But those plans are constantly thwarted by his town’s need for him to run the small building and loan firm that was started by his father, a firm that is the only hope for many of the town’s citizens to own a home–and the last protection against the power hungry tyrant, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).

The great thing about the film is that George struggles with the decision, even after he’s made it. We see his bitterness when his childhood friend, Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson), who is now successful and wealthy, returns to visit George. George could have been wealthy had he invested his money in Sam’s company, instead of keeping it home for his new family and business. Indeed, George and Mary couldn’t go on their honeymoon and had to sacrifice the money from their wedding to save the business. So George not only gives up his dreams, but he can’t even provide for his family the way he would like. Because of that, George almost succumbs to Mr. Potter’s temptation to quit the building and loan and work for him at a higher salary. George ultimately resists, but Capra shows that George is not completely content. The last straw is when Uncle Billy misplaces a significant amount of money. Not only does George sacrifice his dreams and the ability to support his family in the way he would like, but he will now scandalize his family and end up in jail! It’s a situation akin to Job. Job loses his family and his wealth, but he doesn’t complain. But when Job is inflicted with skin disease that’s the last straw, opening the floodgates to his frustration and bitterness. George does something similar when he excoriates the school teacher, who calls checking on George’s daugther, Zuzu. (He blames the teacher for Zuzu catching a cold on her way home.)

All of this amounts to the fact that George Bailey is a human being, not some other-worldy saint. He struggles with his decision, considers going back on it. Mr. Potter of all people, almost covinces George to work for him. In his home, we see artchitectural models, indicating the dreams of the past are not yet dead. We see regret and bitterness. It seems that George has lost out in life. In the world’s–and George’s own–eyes, he’s a failure. This leads to the other part of the film that I like.

A Great Film About God
I don’t think most people think of It’s a Wonderful Life as a religious film, but I would argue that it is–at least in the prominence of Biblical values and a true depiction of the way God works. There isn’t an evangelical message and Jesus isn’t really in the film, but God is a key character, even though we never hear or see him directly (exactly the same way in real life!).

First of all, the film starts off with a prayer(s). We see a shot of the George’s home and we hear the voices of various people praying for George as the camera pans towards the heavens. These are prayers from his wife and his children. But Mary (Donna Reed), his wife, also calls on their friends and fellow town’s people to pray. And it’s their prayers, the recepients of George’s genorosity and sacrifice, that we also hear. These prayers have gotten the attention of God, as evidenced by the ensuing coversation between two angels. George Bailey is in dire need of help and God is responding. In effect, prayers are initiate action.

Before that, Capra goes back in time (and I don’t think Capra gets enough credit for the way he skillfully reorganizing scenes, jumping through time, in a similar way that earned praise for Tarantino) to show us George’s life and the way he got to the present crisis. That’s essentially the first half of the story. But the second half of the story is really about God, the way he reaches out to us when we cry out to him in our darkest hour.

This reaching out tells us a lot about who God is, imo, and it’s another reason why I love this film so much. When believers go through difficulty, we often get upset at God. Why am I going through this? Where is God? we ask. Yet, these are often the moments that God is with us the most–both in terms of helping us deal with the situation as well as using the situation to bless us. This is partly the message in the “Footprints” story where a person looks back at his life and sees two sets of footprints, one representing himself, the other representing God. The person notices that in his most difficult times that only one set of footprints is present and he asks God, “Why were you not with me in my most difficult circumstances?” And God replies, “My child, I’m always with you, and I would never leave you. The reason you see only one set of footprints in your most difficult circumstances was because I was carrying you.” It’s a Wonderful Life tells essentially the same story.

In the present time of the film, George faces his darkest hour–the possibility of scandal and going to jail. In that time, there’s a moment where George is near the end of his rope and at that moment he calls out to God. It’s a very moving and authentic scene played brilliantly by Stewart. George is in a bar and with real desperation, quietly calls on God for help. But the prayer is “answered,” as George believes, by a punch in the face. By chance, the man is the husband of the teacher George berated earlier. Like the person in the “Footprints” story, George feels like God has abandoned him in his hour of need.

The scene also reminds me of Hannah’s intense praying, the type of praying when a person is so burdened and desperate that they don’t care what others think of them; It’s a prayer of genuine humility and vulnerability. I don’t know what she said, but it is the type of prayer that is so raw, stripped of any artifice or concern of “spiritual” language; it’s straight from the heart. While George keeps his prayer inconspicuous, the desperation and intensity are the same. They’re both pouring out their whole heart to God. In my understanding of God, this is a crucial and essential moment. When we humble ourselves and bear our souls to God, I believe God responds favorably. It’s the moment when He really can help us because we become vulnerable and allow Him to help us. Most of the time, we have too much pride, acting as if everything is OK and if it is not, we act as if we can take care of ourselves. We’re often never truly humble before God. When a person opens him or herself up to God in the way that George and Hannah do, to me, it is a beautiful thing, partly because this is the moment that God will do good things for that person.

It is in these moments that God often blesses us the most, too, and this is the wonderful and amazing paradox of the way God often works–the way moments that we think are the most terrible are really the exact opposite. I had an experience like that in college. In my four years of college, I could never find a group of Christians that I felt comfortable with, a group that I connected with; that I could share my struggles with and in turn bear their struggles. Despite praying to find a group like this, I never did, and I always felt discouraged and perplexed by this. Why wouldn’t God want me to find a fellowship that could only help my relationship with God? I could never understand that–until the end of my third year. I was on missions trip in Japan, and I was listening to a sermon given at a camp. While I was huddled with other Americans listening to the translation, I looked out at the mountain view, and I “heard” a voice that said something like, “All this time you wanted to find a church that you could belong to, that could support you. But you see, I didn’t want that because I wanted to teach you myself. You are so special to me that I want to be your private teacher.” These aren’t the exact words, but they are essentially the message I got. In the moment I thought God had abandoned me, He was actually there teaching and supporting me Himself! It was an awesome feeling. Jesus’ death on the cross is the same way, too. At the moment when the disciples thought all was lost, God had achieved the greatest victory! It’s amazing how the moments we think are the worst, are actually the best. This is the kind of thing that enables me to praise God in a heartfelt way. And this is exactly what George experiences, and it’s another reason I love the film so much.

What I love, too, is that George’s gift is beyond what he can imagine. The first gift that George receives, something that is totally sufficient by itself, is the way he is shown how his life really matters to so many people. He gets to understand, before he dies, what’s really important, that friendship and family are more important than worldly success. When George gets his life back, the realization is so wonderful and satisfying to him, he doesn’t care if he’s going to jail. (Heck, I didn’t care if he went to jail. Again, credit Stewart with some strong acting and Capra’s decision to have George run down main street) But God does not stop there.

All legal charges against him are dropped. All the people in town–and even friends no longer living there–contribute money to help George–so much so that George not only recovers the amount lost, but he has more than enough to make him a wealthy man! It’s the same ending in Job where God blesses Job several times over. I think this is another true characterization of God–that if we give ourselves to Him, any suffering will be repaid many times over, whether in this life or the next.

As I mentioned earlier, I love stories where the protagonist must decide to stand up for a principle even if it means losing everything, even if the odds are stacked against him or her. I’m thinking of films like On the Waterfront, The Insider, Serpico, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, among others. This is one of the key battles in a person’s life, a battle that if won–if a person stands firm or sacrifices him or herself for the good of others–is a truly meaningful, and for me, a beautiful triumph. It’s a Wonderful Life is very much in that vein.

But it is more than that. What makes the film different from those other films is the presence of God in the story, His role in these battles and the way He helps and carries us through them, when we humble ourselves and turn to Him. In that way, I see the film not as the triumph of a man, but rather the blessing and faithfulness of God and the ultimate triumph of those that decide to follow and trust in Him.

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