It’s the Christmas season and no season would be complete without a telecast of the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This 1946 movie stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who yearns to leave the small, serene town of Bedford Falls but stays home sacrificing his dreams to help others.
While not considered a box office hit when released, the film is now recognized as one of the 100 best American films ever made. Thanks in part to it being consistently televised every Christmas season since the mid-1970s.
If you are like most Americans, you have seen this flick so many times, that familiarity has bred for some, complacency, for others contempt for this classic Christmas movie. Overexposure can have that effect. But it also affords one the opportunity to notice the little things.
A couple of years ago, I had the unexpected privilege to watch this beloved classic with someone who had never before seen it. I found myself, once again, engaged with all the metaphors the movie offered, the good vs. evil theme, and how a person’s life can indeed influence others. I found myself pointing out scenes to remember, like the one where George Bailey walks up the stairs of his old dilapidated home only to inadvertently grab and pick up the broken cap off one of the stair railings. That scene is repeated near the end of the movie with an entirely different reaction by George.
The good vs. evil theme is reflected in the conflict between George Bailey and the richest, meanest man in town, Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore. One of the classic villains in cinema history, think of Mr. Potter as a combination of Darth Vader and Scrooge in a wheelchair. This conniving bully first tempts George to sell his soul and work for him. When his temptations fail, Potter almost drives George Bailey to suicide, but is saved when an angel arrives to remind George that “no man is a failure who has friends.”
While I have indeed watched this perennial holiday film multiple times over the past 50 plus years, I saw something for the very first time during this recent viewing. It made me appreciate the attention to detail that the Director, Frank Capra, had paid to the little things that most people may never notice, such as the very theme of the movie displayed in a needlepoint hanging on the wall of Bailey’s Savings and Loan. In a scene early in the movie, George Bailey is talking with his Uncle Billy, played by Thomas Mitchell. If you watch closely, you will see the following quote hanging inconspicuously on the wall.
“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
It was a reminder that we all can be a George Bailey, resisting evil and doing good.
And for me, watching this movie for the umpteenth time, familiarity bred only appreciation (not contempt) for the kind of media that reminds us that every life can make a difference.
At the end of the movie, it is George Bailey’s younger brother Harry who proclaims his brother to be “the richest man in town,” a not so subtle message that being rich in the things that matter is what a wonderful life is all about.
“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant…” (Matt 20:26)
“Merry Christmas Mr. Potter!“
Merry Christmas indeed.