Its A Wonderful Life Essay

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It’s A Wonderful Life opens with the voiceovers of different people praying for George Bailey. We then see the galaxies which represent angels talking in Heaven about George. They decide to assign an angel in training, Clarence to George in order to help him not lose hope. In order to do so they show Clarence George’s life to prepare him. We see George at 12 save his brother Harry when he falls into a river in the winter. This is where he lost his hearing in his left ear.

Next, George works for Mr. Gower at his pharmacy in Bedford Falls. He’s asked to deliver a prescription for a little kid, but sees that Mr. Gower has put poison in the pills by accident as he is grieving from the death of his son that morning and has been drinking. By stopping this he saves another life. Years later we see a fully grown George Bailey. He’s a man that’s set to explore the world as it’s all he’s dreamed of since he was a little boy. The day before he is set to leave for his journey over seas his father dies and Potter, the richest man in town, wants to dissolve Bailey Building and Loan, George’s father’s company. He is overturned on one condition: that George stay on and run the company. It’s not his dream, but he does it to save his father’s business. He gives his college money to his brother, Harry who goes on to become a 2nd team All-America football player.

George is excited for Harry’s return because Harry is meant to take over the Building and Loan. But Harry arrives to Bedford Falls having married Ruth and her father has given him a great job in research for his company. Again, George must put his dreams aside for his brother’s wellbeing. During the same time Mary, who is in love with George has returned from college. George goes to see her and soon after the couple is married. On their way to their honeymoon the bank collapses and they have to give all of their wedding money to the people of the town in order to keep them as customers and keep the Building and Loan open, otherwise Potter is going to take it over. They never get to go on a honeymoon so, Mary makes up an old abandoned home for their honeymoon suite. It’s a home that she’s purchased for them to live in.

Years pass and we see George and Mary helping families of little means purchase homes while their friends are becoming wealthy and living in New York. George has taken over a large portion of land which has allowed many families to have quality homes that they wouldn’t have gotten from Potter. In a strategic move Potter offers George a handsome salary, a home and travel to New York and Europe every year to come and work for him. George is lured in, but ultimately rejects his offer as everything Potter stands for is against what he believes in.

We see that over time Mary and George begin to have children. Their family grows to six and then World War II breaks out and as it is ending we learn that Harry has received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Back in Bedford Falls the bank examiner has come to review the Building and Loan accounts. But that same day Uncle Billy accidently put an $8,000 deposit into a newspaper that Potter was reading. Potter realizes it and keeps the money while Billy scrambles to find it with George. In desperation George goes to Potter for a loan and the man says he’s calling in a warrant for his arrest. At home George erupts, kicking over a model bridge in front of his family. He storms out and gets drunk before wrecking his car which leads him to the bridge where he is considering jumping. Just as he does this, Clarence falls into the icy river and George jumps in to rescue him.

Clarence tells George he is assigned to him to help him, and if he does so he will get his wings. George doesn’t believe him and the two go back into town for a drink. But things are different as George told Clarence he wished he was never born, and Clarence made his wish come true. No one in town know him and when he goes around talking to people they think he’s off his rocker and he ends up chasing down Mary who’s never married and works at the library. He scares her so badly the cops come to arrest him and George punches one of them before running back to the bridge to pray for his life back.

Bert, the cop who is George’s friend appears and knows George who is stunned that someone recognizes him. He sprints through the town wishing everyone Merry Christmas and when he gets home Mary has gotten the whole town to rally around him to get him the $8,000 that the business needs to survive. All the sacrifice that George has made for others in his life culminates in those same people sacrificing in order to help him. And of course Clarence was able to earn his wings.

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Our lives are full of wonder, it seems, by the mere fact of our interconnectedness. "We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is," wrote Kurt Vonnegut. Remove one Jenga piece and the tower begins to wobble.
At the start of the 1946 cinema gem, we witness a highlight reel in the seemingly ordinary life of the main character, George Bailey, within the confines of little Bedford Falls, New York. But on the way to nowhere, Bailey rescues his little brother from drowning, saves another kid from getting accidentally poisoned, helps locals build new homes, falls in love and has four precocious children.
These and other actions all have reverberations. "Hier zu sein ist so veil" ("To be here is immense") wrote the poet Rilke. The fallout of George's actions doesn't become clear until he experiences a dystopian version of history in which he never existed.
In the alternative reality, a ship full of soldiers in World War II die because they weren't saved by the war hero brother that George saved from drowning. The town chemist goes to jail for decades for the accidental death of the other kid. The whole town warps into a den of vice and slums because George's greedy nemesis, the immoral Henry Potter, goes unimpeded. And worst of all, judging by the horror on George's face when he learns her fate, his wife becomes a spinster librarian.
The parallel universe demonstrates for Bailey the obvious fact that everything a person does affects (positively or negatively) others.
But that's not the real wisdom of the film.
Bailey isn't struck by what an important cog he is in the gears of a Bedford Falls progress machine. His real moment of epiphany, as he pleads to Clarence to end his never-been-born nightmare, is to return to all the things he loved.
He just wants what he already had, the life he now realizes he failed to appreciate as wonderful.
As we watch his life unfold from elementary school to adulthood, George Bailey becomes a profile of quiet desperation. His heart longs to travel overseas and be a famous architect, but his various plans are thwarted by everything from the death of his father to the Great Depression. He's stuck in a job he seems to hate while his friends and brother are living out the adventures he desires for himself.
He knows his job helps people, he knows he's a decent man, that he has a lovely wife and darling children and lives in a community of well-meaning friends and family, but that's not enough for him.
Before his celestial intervention, George is so profoundly unhappy with his cloyingly small-town life that all it takes is a missing $8,000 from his business and the threat of bankruptcy and disgrace to tip the scales in favor of suicide.
We are all George Bailey. We have dreams unrealized. We are stressed by daily life. We don't fully appreciate what we have, or by what we've managed to accomplish despite our obstacles. We are too often focused on the wrong things. And we are closer than we realize to a huge, catastrophic meltdown triggered by a single financial calamity.
But we're also capable of re-creating Bailey's profound realization. "Though we live much of our lives outside, in action and engagement in the world, the deeper impact of what happens is registered in the narrative of the heart," writes the poet John O'Donohue in his collection "To Bless the Space Between Us."
O'Donohue's superpower is similar to Clarence the angel's: to tease out the sublime meaning in ordinary moments. "Without our ever noticing, the heart absorbs the joy of things and also their pain and care," he writes, seemingly of George Bailey's wonderful life, and then of the character's epiphany, "It is wise now and again to tune in to your heart and listen for what it carries. Sometimes the simplest things effect unexpected transformation."
The real lesson of "It's a Wonderful Life" is that what you think you want out of life and how we spend our days in it, may not be nearly as important as the vital layers accumulating within you, hidden in plain sight.
Love for friends and family, the decency we exchange with those around us, the value of not doing "great things" but small things in a great way. Those are life's moments inscribed in our heart. And what this wonderful film reminds us to do -- should auld lessons be forgot and never brought to mind -- is to take our heart out and read it every so often. At least every Christmas.
Life lessons we learned at the movies02:05
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