It's a Wonderful Life
by Resa Haile
First, of course, I acknowledge that It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic of American filmmaking, combining elements of screwball comedy, drama, and film noir (the Pottersville sequence). It is a beautiful film, a favorite of mine; I admit this. If you haven't seen this film (which is within the bounds of possibility), go and watch it. I’ll wait here.
Those who have seen the movie know how it ends: George Bailey finds that he really had a wonderful life because of what he has meant in the lives of others. In the uplifting final scene, what he has given to others comes back to him through an outpouring of love and support that saves him from imprisonment and scandal. It is, indeed, a wonderful ending.
In the course of the film, we are shown George’s life, and we are shown what the lives of others would have been if George had never been born, but we are never shown a third possibility. We never see what life would have been like if George had succeeded in “shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off [his] feet and see[ing] the world.” Perhaps if George’s father had not had that stroke—or if Potter had—or both. What might George’s life have been then?
It’s a Wonderful Life is a comedy and a tragedy. In the classical definitions of these terms, comedy means the hero wins and tragedy means the hero loses. In the traditional view of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is the hero and Mr. Potter the villain. George Bailey wins in the end because he realizes how wonderful his life truly is.
But let us look at the picture in another way, shift the angle, change the lighting. George Bailey never got to do any of the things he dreamed of doing his entire life. Why? Because of Mary Hatch (later Bailey). Mary, like the couple in the story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” is an example of what happens when we are not careful what we wish for. She is the catalyst for all the bad things that happen to the man she loves.
It is in the scene outside the old Granville house (which George says he wouldn’t live in “as a ghost”) that he makes his speech about “shakin’ the dust of this crummy old town” off his feet. He explains to Mary about breaking the glass (the windows of the house, its eyes, representative of the soul) and making a wish. George makes his hatful of wishes, about leaving town, building things, an extension of the dreams he has had since he was a boy, dreams with which we know Mary is familiar.
A look of determination appears on her face, and Mary suddenly breaks a window of the old house, making her wish, the wish that sets the stage for everything that happens afterwards. Mary wishes that George’s wish does not come true, that he stays in town. This wish traps George in Bedford Falls. It is only a short time after this that George’s friends come to tell him that his father has had a stroke, keeping him from leaving for college.
From the moment of Mary’s wish on, whenever George is close to leaving
, tragedy intervenes to stop him. Her wish traps not only George, but Mary herself, who never gets to go on her honeymoon, although she scarcely minds. George and Mary’s wedding night in the house where they have previously broken the windows, a house where the rain drips in through the leaking roof all the way down to the ground floor, is beautifully realized. But from the angle we view the picture, we can see that Mary’s wish is realized again; she has the house she wanted (which George did not) and, although she did not want to stop for the run on the bank, it was her wish at work again (be careful what you wish for); it is her wish that keeps George in Bedford Falls, in the service of everyone’s dreams but his own. Bedford Falls
It is his remaining in
that brings him to the brink of suicide, saved only by the intervention of an angel seeking to earn his wings. As we view the picture from this angle, we see that Mary Hatch is the villain in George Bailey’s tragedy. Bedford Falls