“Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Those are the words of an Angel-Second Class named Clarence as he tries to distill for George Bailey one of life’s essential truths. Few movies resonate so powerfully after more than 60 years. But It’s a Wonderful Life is timeless, in large part due to its simplicity, and its universal gems of wisdom.
For me, the essence of this story is conveyed early in George’s dark night of the soul, at the bedside of tiny daughter Zuzu Bailey, who is sick with a fever. She shows her father the flower she won at school. So treasured is this delicate specimen that Zuzu walks home that December day with her coat open to protect her flower from the wind. A few petals fall away. She asks her father to make the flower whole, which he cannot. He places the loose petals in his pocket.
Later, when the angel Clarence gives George a glimpse of what might have been, the petals, and so much more than can be humanly reckoned, are gone. The story that follows is a parable about what matters and what doesn’t. Along the way, there are many lessons to be learned. And for that, George Bailey, we thank you.
“Ask Dad, He Knows”
There’s a strong theme of fatherhood throughout It’s a Wonderful Life that jumps into frame the first ten minutes of the film. Working his after-school job at Gower’s Pharmacy, young George is handed a rush delivery of diphtheria medicine. George discovers the grief-stricken and drunken Mr. Gower has mistakenly filled the capsules with poison. Distraught and confused, he sees an advertisement on the wall with the slogan “Ask Dad, He Knows.”
In a sense, George spends his whole life chasing after the ghost of his father, at first struggling against following the same path, but later trying to divine what the elder Bailey would do in his shoes.
Often, years and maturity are required to truly appreciate the wisdom of our fathers. My own dad, much like Peter Bailey, was never one to push advice. But I have always found his words to be sound. As George confides to his father in what becomes their final conversation, “Pop, do you want a shock? I think you’re a great guy.”
Sometimes Something Special is Right Under Your Nose
Mary knows they belong together. Ever since that day in Gower’s Pharmacy when she whispers, in the bad ear of the 12-year-old George, her undying love. Maybe George knows as well, but that knowledge would be among the things he has suppressed, for good or ill, for dreams of a life less ordinary.
Of course, seeing things hidden in plain sight is easier said than done. George is fortunate to have had Mary, the constant and bright moral center of the story, and maybe, the true hero of It’s a Wonderful Life.
How to Give the Perfect Housewarming Toast
There’s a lovely little scene that is rarely mentioned, but it touches me each time I see it. George and Mary help the Martinis move into their new home (including shuttling much of the Martini brood and the family goat in their car). Afterward, The Baileys offer three small gifts and and this simple toast: “Bread, that this house may never know hunger. Salt, that life may always have flavor. And wine, that joy and prosperity may reign forever.”
It reflects a sentiment woven throughout the story, that things of true worth are not measured in dollars, but in the currency of friendship and family, and the good karma one puts out into the world. Maybe best expressed by the motto in Peter Bailey’s office: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
The Calmest, Clearest Voice in the Room Usually Speaks the Truth
The corollary is The Loudest, Most Urgent Voice in the Room is Often Wrong. During a panic-fueled run on the banks, George is confronted by a frightened and angry mob demanding all of their holdings in cash. The money’s not here, George tells the madding crowd. “Your money’s in Joe’s house…and in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others…We’ve got to stick together. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”
It is also a crucial lesson about the corrosiveness of panic and those times when the smartest course is to do nothing. When I was teenager, I saved my paper route earnings to take flying lessons at the sod-covered, country airstrip near home. My instructor was a cantankerous and tantrum-prone retired Air Force major named Pete. He, like George, professed the first and most important thing to do when you’re lost: Stop. Think. No drastic moves. You’ll become more lost, maybe forever lost. Just as the Building and Loan shareholders surely would have been. I’ve found this bit of wisdom truly life-saving more than once, because sometimes the calm voice you need to hear is your own. Thanks, George (you, too, Major Pete).
I Do Have a Wonderful Life (And So Do You)
I know. That’s the whole point of the movie. But books and plays and films have been trying to tell us this for centuries. There’s a haunting moment in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town – the protagonist Emily Webb passes away in childbirth and joins spirits looking down on their loved ones going about the business of everyday life. Emily asks her mother, “Do any human beings realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” “No,” answers Mother. “The saints and poets, maybe they do, some.”
It’s a Wonderful Life deserves credit for not solving every problem with the tinkling of a bell. When George emerges from the nightmare of Pottersville, there’s still a Mr. Potter, no doubt with further designs on the Building and Loan. George will continue to struggle on $45 a week, the old Granville house remains in disrepair, and The Baileys may never venture beyond Bedford Falls. But it is George that is different, as he becomes the change he wishes for the world.
He does this by rediscovering the seemingly simple, commonplace things that are anything but. Like embracing an old friend, realizing that people do care. Or reaching into your pocket to find the petals of a rose a little girl tried to shelter from the cold. For that, George, we can never thank you enough.
This essay originally written for my friend Ree Drummond’s food-lifestyle-entertainment website, ThePioneerWoman.com – Check out her television show on The Food Network – http://www.foodnetwork.com/ree-drummond/