It’s a Wonderful Life has long been one of my favorite Christmas movies and remains so, as our holiday film selection becomes increasingly over-saturated with emphasis on a depiction of Santa Claus, that no more resembles the historical Saint Nicholas than Disney’s Pocahontas resembles the 17th century twelve-year-old of the Powhatan tribe.*
This is a 12-year-old.
As a religious person, the overwhelming focus on Santa, by others of the Christian faith, baffles me. I don’t even want to do the Santa thing, anymore, because I feel the emphasis has become so skewed in favor of a cartoon character and materialism over the birth of the Messiah. A couple of years ago, I told my grandmother that I wasn’t playing Dirty Santa, at the family party.
Me: “It’s just not fun for me and it’s expensive.”
Grandma: “Well, that’s what Christmas is about, you know… giving each other gifts.”
Me: “No, it’s not. Christmas is about Jesus and family.”
My 82-year-old grandmother told me Christmas is about things, y’all. That should horrify you, even if you’re not religious. Santa can go jump in a lake.
So… I’ve really grown to appreciate the old Christmas movies that aren’t afraid to broach faith, family values, and societal responsibility, like Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Despite this, every year, as I watch this favorite Christmas classic, I have some… issues… with George Bailey and the fact that he’s… well, kind of a tool… by the standards of his time and mine. I’d even go so far to state that in 2018, George Bailey would fit several of the prevailing stereotypes of Millennials that I’ve been hearing all of my adult life. For example…
The opening scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, depicts three stars discussing a man on earth who is dangerously close to taking his own life. Ultimately, Clarence AS2 (Angel Second Class, which doesn’t even make sense as far as acronyms go), is assigned to intervene, as we listen to the prayers of George Bailey’s family and friends, one of which clearly declares that “He never thinks about himself.”
Never thinks about himself?!?!? The only truly selfless thing George Bailey does in this movie is to save his brother when he falls through the ice, ultimately losing his hearing in one ear, an action and a consequence he never again mentions. As wondrous as that behavior is from a teenage boy, it’s also the moment little GB peaked. Just a few weeks later, we see him arrive late to his after school job in a drug store, before providing terrible service to the only customers present.
Violet: “Help me down?”
George: ” Help ya down?!?!”
George: “Make up your mind yet?”
Mary: “I’ll take chocolate.”
George: “With coconuts?”
Mary: “I don’t like coconuts.”
George: “Don’t like coconuts? Say brainless, don’t you know where coconuts come from? [pulls out a National Geographic magazine] Look-it here, from Tahiti, the Fiji Islands, Coral Sea.”
Mary: “A new magazine! I never saw it.”
George: “‘Course you never. This is just for us explorers. It just so happens I’ve been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society.” ::puts coconut on the ice cream, anyway::
Spoiler alert: by “explorers”, he means “men.”
Immediately following this scene, we see George approach his boss, Mr. Gower, who’s just lost his son to the flu epidemic of 1919 and is naturally drunk, devastated, and ill-tempered. Realizing that the impaired pharmacist has mistakenly filled some capsules with poison, George risks his ire to correct him, ultimately taking quite the boxing of his sore ear. We’re lead to believe that this is another truly honorable moment; but I think it’s worth considering the fact that this kid just showed up late to work and treated Mr. Gower’s only customers like dirt, prior to pestering him during his grief. While he might not have deserved to be hit, it was a reprimand appropriate to the times. Furthermore, I work with teenagers and I just don’t consider it a stretch to think that any one of them would speak up if they thought someone was about to poison some children, no matter the consequences. I feel like the average American is only impressed by this “heroism”, because they have such devastatingly low expectations of teens.
As the movie continues, we see George grow into a man… an extraordinarily selfish man, who speaks incessantly about what he wants. Even his last words to his father, for which he shows no remorse, are entitled declarations about how he deserves more.
– “Oh, now Pop, I couldn’t. I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office…Oh, I’m sorry Pop, I didn’t mean that, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe…I’d go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.”
After his father dies and the board votes to keep the Bailey Building and Loan open, in response to George’s passionate defense of the community, they only have one condition: George must stay on and take his father’s place.
– “Let’s get this thing straight. I’m leaving! I’m leaving right now! I’m going to school! This is my last chance! Uncle Billy, here, he’s your man!’
That’s right. George’s first consideration when his father’s legacy, his community, is on the line, is what he wants. The next four years apparently offer little growth, as he tells Mary, the night he calls on her:
– “Now, you listen to me. I don’t want any plastics and I don’t want any ground floors and I don’t want to get married ever, to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do!”
“He never thinks about himself”? That’s the entire premise of the first half of this movie. All George Bailey does is think about himself, about what he wants, what he deserves, because…
As a millennial, I literally hear about the entitlement of my generation, weekly… but no matter how many participation trophies I received as a kid (because I certainly didn’t earn any legitimate ones), I have never, in my adult life, compared to the entitlement of George Bailey.
In 1940, only 5.5% of men had completed a college degree, compared to 3.8% of women, not because it was a time of equality, but because a college education was so incredibly rare.* That’s eleven years after George sits at his father’s table, in his very nice middle class home, and tells him he’s better than the Bailey Building and Loan, a year when only 68% of American homes had electricity.* Just weeks later, after his father’s death, George even ridicules the man’s failure to have paid for not just his, but his brother’s education.
– “You are right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap penny-ante building and loan, I’ll never know. but neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… why in the 25 years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself, isn’t that right Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me.”
He does so to a room of men who likely went no further than the 8th grade, themselves, because in 1940 less than 25% of Americans had completed high school.* If you’re wondering why all these stats are about 1940, that’s because prior to that year, the surveys weren’t interested in levels of completed schooling, but literacy. A healthy chunk of the country couldn’t read the day ol’ GB haughtily declared he was turning down the position of executive secretary of his own business to go to college.
Yeah. I’m entitled.
It’s not just his demand for a college education that made George Bailey insufferably privileged, by the standards of that time and this one, but his general disdain for his hometown. I get it, he wanted to travel the world, in a day when men were lucky to have jobs at all, but the lack of exoticism in Bedford falls certainly didn’t earn the level of contempt George had for it.
– “It’ll keep him out of Bedford Falls, anyway.”
– “Homesick?!? For Bedford Falls?!?
– “… stay around this measly, crummy old town.”
This “crummy old town” has an indoor swimming pool under the high school gym. The only rundown house is eventually transformed to a glorious Victorian mansion by Mary Bailey, herself, with just a little elbow grease. Even George declares the falls are beautiful in the moonlight, when he tries to petition Violet to climb Mount Bedford. The dystopian version still has a successful library.
The citizens of Bedford Falls aren’t completely without their struggles, of course. George mentions to Sam Wainright that “half the town” was recently put out of business when the tool and machinery works was closed down. Does that stop him from criticizing anyone who works for Mr. Potter, though?
– “In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you’re nothing but a scurvy little spider… and that goes for you, too!”
Well, George, not everyone was just handed their father’s business, at 22. Zetus Lapetus, much of this movie took place during The Great Depression! Choosers were literally beggars, which brings me to my final point of our “hero’s” entitlement. George Bailey was 12 in 1919, born in 1907. These years weren’t exactly known for the wealth of choices they provided. Throughout the entirety of It’s a Wonderful Life, however, George is constantly choosing his path. He chose to stay and run the Bailey Building and Loan after his father died. He chose to give his college money to Harry and let him take another job, when he was more than willing to take over. George chose to marry Mary, immediately after stating that it wasn’t what he wanted. He chose not to invest in Sam Wainwright’s business despite the fact that he’d apparently saved two thousand dollars for his travels. That’s thirty thousand dollars, today and ol’ GB chose to forfeit it to keep the Building and Loan open.
In a time of rampant polio and domestic violence and 25% unemployment, George had the luxury to choose his path and each and every time, he was an absolute martyr about it. He didn’t do these things, because he was selfless. He did them because of societal expectation, because of his image, and we know this, by his perpetual bellyaching, because…
When I went on this rant during my bi-weekly teen book club, because that’s the librarian I am, my kids argued that this was the point of the movie and I’ll give them that. However, in the opening scene it’s heavily implied that George Bailey is only presently forgetting how good he has it, as he faces financial ruin and scandal on Christmas Eve. I mean, who wouldn’t see the brown spots on their lawn, in that light? For our “hero”, though, the grass has perpetually been greener. The entire movie highlights his general unhappiness and lack of appreciation.
George Bailey sits in his father’s home, as he’s served by a maid, and insists he can do better for himself. He somehow begrudgingly both inherits his own business and marries a beautiful women, who’s been in love with him her whole life. He has a respectable excuse to avoid the war and make beautiful babies, yet still finds something to complain about, while other men are dying and losing limbs. All the while, Mary Bailey remodels their home, cares for their children, and runs the USO, without a word of complaint. You the real MVP, Mary Bailey, because if this movie is an accurate indicator of your husband’s daily behavior, I’d have smothered him with a pillow in the first month of marriage. I mean, you could have been a librarian.
Years go by and George Bailey lives in a beautiful home, in a wealthy little town. He’s a respected member of society, by everyone from the town tramp to the bartender to his arch nemesis’s financial adviser. Still, his days are ruined by such inconsequentials as a loose newal cap on the staircase.*
Dude, even Zuzu was like, “Paste it, Daddy.”
Is it that much of a surprise, when things really go sideways and he says:
– “…It’s this old house. I don’t know why we all don’t have pneumonia. Drafty old barn! Might as well be living in a refrigerator… Why do we have to live here in the first place, and stay around this measly, crummy old town…”
– “Wrong? Everything’s wrong. You call this a happy family — why do we have to have all these kids?”
– “What kind of a teacher are you, anyway? What do you mean, sending her home like that, half naked? Do you realize she’ll probably end up with pneumonia, on account of you? Is this the sort of thing we pay taxes for, to have teachers… to have teachers like you… stupid, silly, careless people who send our kids home without any clothes on?”
That last little remark earned him a busted lip, and despite the general disagreement of the community of Bedford Falls, I’d say it was quite well-deserved. It’s at this point, however, that we see George Bailey finally begins to realize how good he has it, and yet… the only hope poor Clarence has of convincing him of this, is a glimpse through the most self-centered lense of all time. Looking into the eyes of his loving wife, adoring children, and loyal friends wasn’t enough to convince George that life was worth living. Nope. Ol’ GB could only see value in his life when someone put a gold star next to his every good deed. His existence was only worth the effort, once it was proven that just by being alive, he changed the world. Folks, if that ain’t a participation trophy…
Pictured: The Original Millennial