Friday, March 5, 2010

What did George Bailey say?

I've just finished watching It's a Wonderful Life. But, you may ask, it's not Christmas! Well, who ever said it was a Christmas movie? Just because George runs down the street shouting "Merry Christmas, movie house!"? Yes, the finale is set around Christmas, but that setting has very little, if anything to do with the movie's climax. In fact, the vast majority of the film doesn't feature Christmas in any way. Maybe because there's an angel in it and people associate it with Christmas angels? The angel stuff is the weakest part of the film anyway. Not the alternate universe thing, but the silly angel stuff where Clarence does something magical and we hear "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" music. ...But I'm rambling now. I watched the film because I've just rewatched all the Oscar nominees for 1946, and this film was one of them. It lost to The Best Years of Our Lives, another very good, though troubled, movie. It would be funny to see a mash-up of the two, where Harry Bailey comes back a war hero but can't get a job, so he has to hang out in Martini's bar with a guy with no hands.

I've rambled again. None of that has anything to do with this post. This is about the movie I just finished watching. Now, I'm living in my own little George Bailey world right now, only in my world the movie ends with Mr. Potter winning, George goes to jail, and the rest of the town doesn't barge into the house to sing songs and deliver money. But putting real life aside, let's look at the ending Capra gave us. The movie would have pretty well worked anyway for George even if he had gone to jail at the end. But no, '40s America demands a happy ending.

The first thing that struck me was that George runs home to find the bank examiner there with a reporter, his cameraman, and a policeman with a warrant for George's arrest. Then the kids show up at the top of the stairs and we learn that Mary has been out with Uncle Billy looking for George. ...Wait, what? This is supposed to be the good universe, right? What kind of mother runs out of the house and leaves her four children in the care of the men who are going to arrest her husband? My oh my, the 1940s WERE more innocent times!

That's not even what I wanted to say, that's just a sidenote. The main thrust of this post (as the title suggests) is the question "What did George Bailey say?" There's a point in that final scene, after that blonde woman decides she's not leaving town after all that it cuts to George and he mouths something. Surely he didn't say what I think he did, I think. Let me show you what I'm talking about, it's about the one minute mark:

Did you catch that? Now, I don't think it takes the best lip-reader in the world to figure that out, right? So let me just come out and say it, forgive the language readers: Did George Bailey just say "fuck me"? And with little ZuZu right there too! At first I thought maybe I'd got it wrong and he said something like "Well, I'll be!" but thought that's the sentiment, it clearly isn't the verbiage.

My case is further supported by precedent. In other films of this era, sound is often dropped out or masked when a profanity is used, so the audience gets it, but the censors don't. For example, there's a point in the Fred Astaire movie Swing Time that a character says "son of a bitch", and a car horn honks over the word. So it wouldn't surprise me if Capra intentionally dropped out the sound. Or maybe it was always meant to be silent. Maybe it was a Steward ad lib?

What troubles me most about this is that I notice it when I watch it, but no one ever seems to talk about it! And you'd think I could find something on the internet. I mean, with all those "a munchkin is seen hanging in The Wizard of Oz" or "Aladdin tells Jasmine to take off her clothes" rumors, you would think that someone would mention it. Because unlike those examples, this is actually true! It's right there onscreen! I'm amazed nobody talks about it! There's nothing on IMDb about it, even in the message boards, nothing on wikipedia, nothing even in YouTube comments. Is everyone just so misty-eyed by the message that it completely passes them by?

Considering how often this is watched every year, the silence on this subject is deafening. Do they cut that out when they air it on TV, or are the network censors just as oblivious? Anyway, that's all I really wanted to say. I thought somebody out here ought to point it out. Right now, I think it's M*A*S*H that holds the distinction of being the first American film to use the "F" word. We may have to challenge that distinction, or at least give honorable mention to a prior American classic: It's a Wonderful Life, a masterpiece of sentimental Americana, and the first bemused use of the naughtiest of words.

Tell me I'm wrong, dear readers. And if I am, I challenge you to tell me what George Bailey really said.

UPDATE!: All right, I've watched this again and again, and I think I've got it figured out. It is possible that George is simply stating the blonde woman's name, Violet Bick. If you put those words in his mouth, it looks like that might be what he's saying, and it certainly makes sense. However, since there's no sound, it's still a very risque lip-read, even if it's probably innocent.


  1. I had Kirk (an unconscious lip reader since childhood) watch it 3 times before I saw your update. His first pronouncement was 'I can't quite make it our but I always assumed it was her name.' Then when he read what you thought you saw his response was 'No way!' We both thought the first sound might be an 'F' but unlike the old Soupy Sales bit there was no 'you see K.'

    I agree there is no sound, but Kirk's reaction that this was a case of not removing the surrounding noise rather than dropping out Jimmy Stuart's voice.

  2. Oh yeah, after we looked up the character's name Violet Bick is absolutely what he says.