Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Great American Hero (Part 1) - Who Is George Bailey?

A Review of “It’s A Wonderful Life”

This is the first time I watched the movie as an adult, understanding much about banking, psychology and history. And boy is that a rich movie! Every scene taught something about the values of the era in which it was made (1946)! And it is striking how different their values are from our own.

If you’ve been living in the Soviet Union the past seventy years and have not seen this movie, go see it (Amazon sells it Instant Streaming for $10). If you must, the plot is summarized at some length on Wikipedia, but I’ll briefly describe it here. The movie is about George Bailey, a man who is presented with numerous dilemmas between his own desire and duty, and he continually chooses duty. He saves his brother, but at the cost of hearing in one ear. He prevents an accidental poisoning, but takes a beating for it. When his father dies suddenly, he saves his business (“Bailey Building and Loan,” sort of a credit union), but has to give up travelling (his heart’s desire). He saves it again after a few months, but has to delay college for four years, giving his college money to his brother (who will return to run the business). After four years, his brother returns but has a better job offer; he stays running the business to allow his brother to follow his dreams. Then he gets married, and on the way to finally travel for the first time with his new wife on their honeymoon, he sees a run on the bank. He saves his business by giving away all the money he saved for his honeymoon. Finally, after he has some success in his business, he’s offered a job that will make him wealthy but close the business and thus hurt his friends; he refuses it. Finally, after his uncle loses a large amount of money, the bank is going to close and he’s going to go to jail for fraud. He considers suicide so that his life insurance policy would keep his business running and his family secure, but then an angel intervenes and shows him how important his life has been to so many people.

The striking thing about the story is that George Bailey never gets what he wants. He wants to travel. But he never gets to, not even in the happy ending. The miraculous ending is that his friends come to his rescue, donating enough money to him to keep him doing his job. Every step of this man’s life is a sacrifice, choosing duty and sacrifice to others over selfish desires. He suffers, and suffers and suffers. The only reward he ever gets is in relationship with friends and family. And the message of the movie is that friendship is enough. You don’t need money, or fun, or even a job you like. In fact, you should be willing to give up all those things.

There are a number of other things that George Bailey does which are unheard of in modern movies and TV. After having the worst day of his life, he gets frustrated and yells at his kids. After he realizes what he’s done, he immediately apologizes. Who does that? What modern movie shows such a man with the courage and humility to immediately admit he was wrong and apologize? When there was the run on the bank, they are handing out cash to people without paperwork; they expect the people will remember and honestly report how much they took at a later time. What kind of world does that kind of relationship exist between a business and its customers? And who can put that kind of trust in others? When his uncle loses the money, takes responsibility for it:

Bailey: No, there’s no discrepancy in the books. I've just misplaced $8000. I can't find it anywhere.
Potter: You misplaced $8000?
Bailey: [meekly] Yes sir.

He covers for his uncle. He is a man who takes the blame due to another, even when it will here cost him dearly. He suffers here when it would be easy for him to throw his idiot uncle under the bus. Who is manly enough today to do such a thing?

I entirely agree with the celebration of George Bailey and his character. But I must also note that the philosophy underlying the praise is still largely secular (which is not consistent with my caricature of 1940s America). Common disbelief in angels is a theme that is played upon, but angels in “It’s a Wonderful Life” are more like fairies than Christian angels: silly things with limited power trying to put humans on the right path. The movie’s message was summarized by the Clarence the angel, “No man is a failure who has friends.” Though I think it a far better approximation of Truth than modern movies that might say, “No man is a failure who has money/a hot wife/success,” or “No man is a failure who lives his own life.” God (or the angelic order) shows George that his life is meaningful because he has lots of friends; God is not a relevant factor in determining a man’s purpose in life.

Part 1 - Who is George Bailey
Part 2 - George Bailey vs The Modern World

1 comment: