Over the last century no movie has been more synonymous with the Christmas season than It’s a Wonderful Life. A copyright lapse allowed this modestly successful movie to become a staple of holiday programming for generations. But it endures, more than seven decades after its release, because it strikes at least five deep spiritual chords in every human heart.
It’s a tale of sacrifice, and choosing well
It’s a Wonderful Life chronicles George Bailey’s evolution from a well-meaning braggart to the perfect exemplar of a servant’s heart. George begins by film by articulating what Rev. Tim Keller calls a “modern identity” – a chosen self-image constructed of favored attributes and aspirations – telling Mary:
I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that. I'm shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world: Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm coming back here and go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields. I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I'm gonna build bridges a mile long.
These words echo in his mind after Henry F. Potter offers George a job making nearly 10-times his salary. When Bailey learns that he’s going to be a father, all purely personal considerations evaporate. At pivotal moments, George accepts a traditional identity composed of burdens which Sir Roger Scruton calls “unchosen obligations” (perhaps not entirely unchosen in the matter of his parental status): his roles as dutiful son, temporary secretary of the Building and Loan, lender of last resort to stave off insolvency, and the protector of his clients.
His cycle of sacrifice reaffirms the truth that “the greatest among you shall be your servant” (St. Matthew 23:11).
It reveals the enchantment of everyday life
Frank Capra threads the needle by underscoring the importance of seemingly mundane affairs, like business and banking.
When George’s father asks him to consider working at the Building and Loan, George says he “couldn't face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office. … I want to do something big and something important.” His father responds:
You know, George, I feel that in a small way we are doing something important, satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we're helping him get those things in our shabby little office.
Although the screenwriters may not have realized it, the pithy observation they placed in his mouth goes back to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Pope Leo XIII, who observed that “motive of [human] work is to obtain property.” Business and economic activity facilitate these deep-seated human needs.
Most Americans, including many clergy, share George’s youthful disdain for business, of “trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe.” But the Baileys found an unmet need: providing credit to people desperate for a better life. By offering them access to capital, George Bailey gave average people an opportunity. Wise financial stewardship empowered social outcasts to escape the tyranny of working for others and instead build their own homes, own their own businesses, and benefit their own families.
When George explains how banks work, he shows his clients that they participated in their own liberation. “You’re thinking of this place all wrong, as if I had the money back in a safe,” he tells them. “The money’s not here. Your money's in Joe’s house – right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others.” Their small savings built their collective dreams.
It’s a Wonderful Life stands the test of time, in part, because it is based on an accurate understanding of human nature – and how consequential our workaday actions can become.
It’s a David vs. Goliath story
Since Biblical times, people have loved an underdog – no people more so than Americans, who earned their independence from the world’s greatest empire. George Bailey also overcame incalculable odds. Mr. Potter epitomized the crony capitalist establishment, who enjoyed such a concentration of resources and power that he kept congressmen waiting to see him. Everyone’s well-being depended on Potter’s favor.
The highest realization of Potterville is communism and its economic corollary, socialism. Command economics makes central planners the final arbiters of life’s most consequential decisions. Regal bureaucrats determine who receives a dacha on the Black Sea and who lives in the dingy cell of a gulag, who receives emergency surgery and who is denied medical treatment – and, like Mr. Potter, they inevitably reserve the most resplendent fineries for themselves.
As long as the free market allows competition, someone will offer better services to those in need. It’s a Wonderful Life illustrates that, unless an oppressor’s monopoly is state-enforced, it will crumble as surely as the Philistine encountering the child’s fatal pebble.
It’s a tale of the dignity of the individual
Bailey’s loans enable Southern and Eastern European immigrants to live on equal terms with other Americans, striking a blow for human dignity. Every family deserves the opportunity to earn a living. And all neighbors should gather to share their “bread, that this house may never know hunger; salt, that life may always have flavor; and wine, that joy and prosperity may reign forever.”
But It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t stop at the now-trite affirmation of ethnic equality: It uplifts the smallest minority of all, the individual.
Frank Capra once affirmed this was the movie’s purpose. “The importance of the individual is the theme that it tells: that no man is a failure and that every man has something to do with his life. If he's born, he's born to do something,” he said. George Bailey’s biography shows us that every life holds infinite possibilities, sending ripples out into the farthest reaches of the world.
Life is sacred, the holy participation in the spark of divinity given to the human race at its creation. Respecting life from conception to natural death is the first duty of government. Rulers must also respect the rights that flow from that sublime status: liberty, property, and the ethical pursuit of happiness. Every life, if allowed to unfold organically, has the potential to be “wonderful.”
It’s a resurrection story
It’s a Wonderful Life endures, because it taps into another story deeply woven into the fabric of the West: the Greatest Story Ever Told.
George Bailey is one of cinema’s most innocent figures (if not entirely innocent in the matter of Mary’s robe). He sacrificed his dreams of travel and wealth only to find himself framed for embezzlement and about to lose his business, his reputation, and his freedom. His righteous life, dedicated to others’ benefit, ended with him on the lam from a bogus charge after offending the town’s establishment. One might even say, if it’s not stretching the metaphor too far, that his extending credit to the average person overturned the tables of Mr. Potter’s moneychangers.
As George returns from his angelic vision determined to face his inequitable fate, he experiences deliverance. In Bailey’s case, his redemption came from others whom his own good acts spurred to generosity. The movie both chronicles his sacrificial life, unjust sentence, “death,” resurrection, and public vindication.
It’s a Wonderful Life nurtures our belief that a life of righteousness will find its reward, that eventually “all manner of thing shall be well.” And in the end, “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”