At the beginning of “Wonderful Life,” twelve-year-old George Bailey jumps into the ice-cold water to save his younger brother Harry from drowning in sledding – a heroic action that costs George’s left ear hearing.
I was about the age when I started watching “Wonderful Life” with my parents every year, usually on Christmas Eve – which means I’ve watched the film at least 19 times. And that doesn’t count when I experienced it as a rerun on TV or how many times my editor left his unusual George Bailey impression in the office.
I can recite this movie line by line. Somehow, I always manage to cry on the same parts. And, without mistake, by the end of the film I become an unfortunate mess, when Harry Bailey utters his short but powerful toast: “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
Watching Sunday afternoon 2020 was no different. But in the year when COVID-19 was the dominant story, “Life is Wonderful” took on a new meaning for me. The film is 74 years old, but the story of a man eager to escape the city – and who becomes increasingly unhappy as his plans fail – embodies what almost everyone has gone through during this difficult year.
In quarantine in Bedford Falls
Clarence: You sent for me, sir?
Elder Angel: Yes, Clarence. Man on earth needs our help.
Clarence: Great. Is he sick?
Older Angel: No, even worse. He is discouraged.
Maybe it’s because the pandemic and mental health were the main problems this year – or the fact that the day before watching “Wonderful Life” I was tested on COVID-19, but this passage at the beginning of the film really stuck with me.
More than half of the film “Life is Wonderful” was spent on introducing viewers to the plight of George Bailey, a man who wants nothing more than to leave the small town of Bedford Falls in New York and see the world.
His eyes lit up with the sound of train whistles. He keeps travel brochures in his coat pocket.
“I just feel like I wouldn’t run away to fail!” George tells his father who longs for his son to stay home and take out a family loan.
Having spent more time at home than usual this year, I really felt George’s pain every time the opportunity to leave Bedford Falls slipped away.
When his father dies, George gives up traveling to Europe to stay at home and get involved in the family business. In order for a wealthy, self-deprecating banker, Mr. Potter, to have control of everything in town (Potter is a real Bedford Falls virus), George gives money for college to his younger brother and stays to run the Bailey Bros. building. Loan Association.
And, of course, running around the coast just in time for George to embark on his honeymoon. George’s wife Mary – the true hero of “Wonderful Life” (more on that later) – is giving up her $ 2,000 savings on her honeymoon to save George’s job.
In short, George never leaves Bedford Falls.
The frustration is particularly striking in 2020, when the pandemic has diminished big travel plans – for my part, I have repeatedly pushed travel to my hometown in South Carolina.
More than ever, I resonated with George’s desire to come out. And as much as the scene is always scary to watch, George’s great breakdown in front of the family made it more enjoyable.
He spent his entire life sacrificing his own dreams and donating the town of Bedford Falls. When Uncle Billy loses the company’s $ 8,000 on Christmas Eve, George is probably stuck in jail for a job he didn’t want to work for at all. Despite all his efforts, that business could fail so that the entire city falls into the hands of the corrupt Mr. Potter.
In this dark moment, discouragement prevents George from seeing the light around him. And as the angel says at the beginning of the film, it is worse than any disease.
“Every man’s life touches so many other lives.”
The word “contagious” has become common this year, both in news headlines and in everyday conversations. In the midst of a pandemic, it became directly linked to COVID-19.
But “Life is wonderful” reminded me that contagious has another definition – which is not limited to the negative connotations of the disease. Attitudes and actions, such as gratitude, kindness, and love, can also be contagious.
In the last act, “Life is Wonderful,” George is given the opportunity to see what the world would be like without him. His eyes widen in disbelief as he sees the friendly town of Bedford Falls become gloomy Pottersville. He was not there to save his brother Harry from drowning in 1919 – a year that, incidentally, was still feeling the effects of the flu pandemic. Back then, Harry was nowhere near becoming a World War II hero.
George was nowhere near forcing his boss at the local pharmacy, Mr. Gower, to realize that the child had accidentally mixed poison with medication. Mr. Gower went to prison for 20 years.
“Strange, isn’t it?” Every man’s life touches so many other lives, ”the angel tells Clarence George. “When he’s not around, he leaves a horrible hole, doesn’t he?”
This year, in particular, we see the power of one person to literally save lives and influence others for the better. To fight COVID-19, many people sacrifice their own desires, going away from their usual activities and wearing masks in public.
But in this time of physical distance and anxiety, people have also found ways to combat the discouragement that overwhelms George in the movie “Life is Wonderful.” Readers of Deseret News shared a number of stories of neighbors checking on each other, making sure people have what they need and jumping in to help them when they miss it.
The pandemic has brought countless acts of service, revealing that your behavior toward others is contagious.
I forgot that until I watched “Life is Wonderful.”
A real hero
In George’s darkest hour, Mary, a quiet and moody heroine, begs friends and family. She continues to contact all of her husband’s friends and people from Bedford Falls to focus financially. Given everything George has done for them over the years, they don’t even hesitate.
In a short time, Mary collects more than three times the amount George needs to get out of his obligations.
I’ve always been a little annoyed that Potter is getting away with stealing money that Uncle Billy “strayed” into – even though the old SNL Scythian went through great strides to correct that mistake. In the end, perhaps Potter’s greatest punishment is that he has no one to turn to if he ends up in trouble like George.
In the end, “Life is Wonderful,” George is surrounded by all of his loved ones. This is a particularly shocking scene at a time when there are generally no such gatherings. But it reminded me of my own Bedford Falls – a community of people who raised me over and over again. That community extends far above one city. And while I may not see many of these people this year, their love and encouragement still exist. It’s in text messages and zooming calls and handwritten letters and special gifts.
“No man is a failure who has friends,” Clarence says.
Now I understand that more than ever.