*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(SPOILERS - but if you haven't seen this already ...)
Before finally writing a commentary on one of my favorite films, I read through a few of the preceding comments, and I was surprised to see so many nay-sayers. Their posts were far from the usual "this film sucks" type of puerile commentary, however; it seems this film provokes intelligent discussion even from those who dislike it (or perhaps dislike the avalanche of affection it normally receives).
I won't bother to recap the entire plot blow by blow. If you've seen it, you already know it, and if you haven't there are plenty of extensive recaps already in the User Comments section. What works for me is Jimmy Stewart as Everyman, George Bailey. Unless you are very fortunate, most people wake up and find out that they have given up their dreams as trade-offs for other things in their lives -- family, friends, etc. Most of us are at peace with this. However, it's very apparent that while George has put aside his disappointment, it lurks below the surface and is the vulnerable chink in his armor. Potter (brilliantly portrayed by Lionel Barrymore) knows this and almost successfully exploits it; George stops himself just before agreeing to be bought by Potter after Potter promises him a substantial (for its time, an enormous) salary and travel opportunities.
George, having had to put his own dreams on hold or away on at least three separate occasions now, prospers modestly and builds a family, and his disappointment stays below the surface until disaster strikes. His unreliable Uncle Billy (Capra regular Thomas Mitchell) unknowingly hands Potter the bank deposit, literally putting the means for George's destruction in Potter's hands. Potter informs the bank examiner and the DA about the $8000 shortage at the S&L, and George faces ruin and prison for embezzlement. He tries asking Potter for help -- crawls for it, actually -- and Potter gleefully refuses. George, while holding onto his low-equity whole-life policy, realizes that the policies make him worth more dead than alive and plans to commit suicide. That's when an angel steps in and shows George what his world would have been like had he never been born.
Some people think that George is owed something monetary by the townspeople, but actually George has prospered modestly by helping them prosper. In terms of money, neither really owe each other anything. In terms of friendship, George has been what Potter is financially -- as rich a man as any other. But George, in his plight, doesn't see this. All he sees is financial, legal, and social ruin because he's looking through Potter's eyes; Potter has succeeded (temporarily) in ruining him spiritually. He even turns into a low-rent Potter on his initial return home, barking at his kids and his wife, smashing things, yelling at the schoolteacher, before righting himself somewhat and trying to apologize to his terrified family. He leaves for a bar, where his friends try to find out what's wrong, and he sends up a desperate prayer to God for help in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I've ever watched. (And then he gets punched in the nose by the husband of the schoolteacher, in one of the most wry moments ever on screen.)
The look at what Bedford Falls becomes without ever having a George Bailey isn't as important, although Potterville certainly is the inspiration for Back to the Future Part II's alternate Biff-run Hill Valley. George comes back to reality with his soul and his faith restored, running through the restored Bedford Falls with joy while heading towards certain ruin. His faith leads him back to his wife, who has been his support and his partner through all his setbacks. Instead of ruin, his friends -- not his debtors -- have all heard that their friend is in serious trouble and have come to help. Their faith in their friend George never wavered (they know he didn't steal anything), even if his faith in them failed, mirroring the faith that God has in each one of us even when we don't have faith in Him or in ourselves. Even Sam Wainwright, from whom he 'stole' Mary, sends a line of credit that guarantees George will be saved. His brother, a Medal of Honor winner who was to make a triumphant entrance the next day, instead comes back in time to say what George finally realizes: he is indeed the richest man in town.
At its core, then, this movie isn't about Christmas, it's about faith: faith tested, faith failed, faith restored. George loses faith in himself and God and his friends and family, and is shown why their faith in him won't completely fail. In a way, this is really more of an Easter story -- Potter crucifies George, who becomes reborn. In order to make this work, you have to see George lose his soul, as he does in those moments after he realizes the ruin that Billy has made of their lives, and that means George has to do some unsympathetic things. A couple of the actions he takes at home borders on emotional abuse, which is why his wife asks him to leave. In order for the film to work, he has to hit bottom, and Stewart masterfully portrays this.
At the same time, Donna Reed had to play her role as even-keeled as possible, as dependable and rock-solid against Stewart's agonizing emotional swings, in order to both highlight Stewart's work and to symbolize God's support and faith. Reed is absolutely amazing in this role, understating while not giving an inch to Stewart in their scenes together. Mary is a real woman, not some straw-man symbol, and without that the film would have utterly failed.
And what of Potter? Why does Potter get away with the money? In a standard morality play, Potter would get caught and wind up ruined, but this film isn't a standard morality play. Potter exemplifies the Scriptural warning, "What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?" Potter, by taking and keeping the money and later turning George in, has lost his chance for redemption. He is dead already and nothing on Earth can save him but himself. However, this is not a blanket indictment of all who have money, as Sam Wainwright gladly steps in to save his friend -- and Sam is certainly the nouveau-riche type of person that is easy to dislike in standard morality plays. Potter represents himself and the greedy avarice that has consumed him.
When watching this film at any time of year, we are reminded that while events can cause us to lose faith in God and in ourselves, we can still hope that those around us do not lose their faith in us. We are not defined by how much or how little money we have; our goodness comes through in how we treat others and how we all help along the way. All the money in the world cannot save us from death, but God (and our friends) can save us from spiritual death in times of crisis. That's why this is one of the greatest movies ever made and why it belongs in the top 10 of anyone's movie list.
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