Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Last Selfless Act of George Bailey

It seems I've written several times about It's a Wonderful Life. The last time I watched it, I realized something that I'd glossed over before, a point that puts the whole movie in a different perspective.

Most people are familiar with the story, or at least the third act. George's life is a mess, so he jumps off a bridge. But an angel saves his life, and then shows him how the world would be if he were never born. George realizes his life has meant something, and we get a happy ending. This is often framed in the collective unconscious and in parody retellings within the concept of Christmas suicides. But this reading is wrong.

There's this fanciful statistic floating out there that there are more suicides on Christmas Eve than on any other night. I don't know if that's true, but I'm inclined to say it's not. Anway, many people think that's where George Bailey was at the start of the movie. That he was so depressed at the situation he was in that he just wanted to kill himself and give up. When Rugrats retold the story (in perhaps the best parody of the story I've ever seen), Chuckie ran away from home because nobody cared about him. But this is not it at all.

Yes, George was angry. He was frustrated that the only thing he ever wanted in life he was never able to do. He tired of being the one guy who had to save everybody all by himself. And at that point most of all he was at the end of his rope, out of ideas on how to save them this time, knowing that old man Potter might finally win. But it isn't despair that sends him off that bridge; it's love. Inside George's coat is his life insurance policy. George is a desperate man so desperate as to give up his own life so that the money in his policy would save his family. Now, that's still a foolish prospect, but it's not the act of a despondent man. He was not a miserable guy who just wanted to end it all and jumped off a bridge. He stood on that bridge pondering whether it was worth drowning to save others; one final selfless miracle from George Bailey.

He doesn't jump in the water as I recall; he falls in. Either way, the whole thing about "life would be better if I were never born" comes out of an argument with Clarence the angel. George does NOT jump off a bridge because he wishes he were never born. It might seem a minor point, but to me it paints the whole film and George's character in a different light.

I don't think of George Bailey as a broken man who wanted something stupid. I see him as a hero; a tower of plain everyman courage and selfless kindness. In the real world of course there would be no happy ending. I wanna know where my sudden basket of neighborhood money is right about now. In many respects it is NOT a wonderful life. "Life is pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something" (Princess Bride). The world as it is now is awful and will basically not get better. But that's no reason to deny George Bailey his nobility. His pondering suicide may have been misguided, but it was for a good cause. Think about that.


  1. I have never seen George Bailey as a broken man, just very tired. He has lost hope and that is saddest place to be. I disagree that there is no happy endings in life. They just don't often come when and where you want them with a nice big banner of "Here's the Happy Ending" like they do in the movies.

    No George Bailey is not a broken man, but he has lost his ability to hope and see where the good things are in his life. Even with George's "Happy Ending," he is only back to the status quo where his kids get sick, his uncle is a bumbler and he has to work hard every day for what he's got.

  2. there are no happy endings, because nothing ends.

  3. Another note, George does not fall in the water, he jumps in! Although he was contemplating suicide, he JUMPS IN TO SAVE Clarence!

    If there are no ends, then revise my comment to "there is no nice big banner in life that says here is where the movie would cut for the happy ending."