Wonderful Life, part seven: "You're worth more dead than alive!"

It's Christmas Eve, and Bedford Falls is buzzing about Harry Bailey, who's coming home just as soon as the President gives him the Congressional Medal of Honor. At the bank, Uncle Billy gloats to Potter, who asks if George wouldn't rather be the one who traveled to far-off places and fought the Axis. (Potter understands everything about George except his basic decency. He certainly understands his tight finances, which is what he'll be testing today.)

Anyway, Uncle Billy gives Potter the paper so he can read about Harry, but fails to notice that he's folded up his bank deposit of $8,000 inside that paper. Potter watches from his corner office (he took over the bank on George's wedding day, remember) as Uncle Billy fumbles for the money at the teller's window, then races frantically about the lobby. If I were Potter, I'd be wondering why I didn't go after Uncle Billy sooner; he's always been the weak link in that partnership.

It's so weird how the very day Uncle Billy loses all their money is the day the bank examiner is auditing the Building and Loan. It's also the day Violet Bick comes in asking for a loan so she can move to New York and make her fortune. She apologizes to George because she has no collateral and few prospects, but he tells her the same thing he tells all his neighbors: he knows her, knows she's a good person, and he's sure she'll pay him back in her own time. She kisses his cheek, leaving a lipstick stain that the bank examiner stares at pointedly.

(I'm emphasizing this part, by the way, because I think it's going to be important to understand the options women have in Bedford Falls as opposed to ... other places.)

Uncle Billy bursts in, staring into corners and shuffling papers like he expects to find thousands of dollars in cash in them (but it is Uncle Billy, so you never know). George is like "Dude, will you just act like a normal person while the bank examiner is here?" and Billy freaks out and yanks George into his office. A few seconds later, they both come out with Billy Disease, the symptoms of which involve acting very distracted and staring anywhere one might have absently laid $8,000.

Potter watches as the men march up the street, eyes firmly on the ground. With every passing minute, he feels more and more confident that Billy won't remember the newspaper. (He was exercising a businessman's caution by being worried at all, because when has Uncle Billy remembered anything, ever?)

So, after a few hours of searching, George finally screams at Billy and storms off, and it's way less satisfying than you'd think, because while somebody really ought to come down hard on Uncle Billy, it shouldn't be George. George is too smart to rail futilely at sad old men, Potter only excepted.

Then George goes home, where Mary can tell that something's up but can't get it out of him, and then we get the Zuzu's Petals scene. (In case you don't remember, daughter Zuzu is ill because she was given a flower at school and kept her coat open so as not to crush it, which makes not a lick of sense, but then again Zuzu herself doesn't make much sense, seeing as how she acts like she's never seen a flower before today. When a few petals fall off the bloom, George pockets them.)

In the face of his sick, flower-obsessed daughter, George shows admirable self-control, (although she is far more annoying than Pete, who only wants to know how to spell things properly. If I ever become a parent, I vow to never get upset with my children for asking how to spell difficult words). He's gentle with her - saving his wrath until he gets downstairs, then unloading it on Zuzu's teacher (who calls to see how she's doing), the "drafty old house," and his three healthy children.

Mary knows George has a rough time of it at work, but she'll be damned if he's going to talk to their kids that way. Finally, he shambles off, and Mary calls up Uncle Billy to find out what the heck happened at work that day.

Meanwhile, George has gone to Potter for help. And while Potter could use this opportunity to own George's whole life, he instead decides to give his own speech (um, drink?) about how George ain't so big now, is he? And then he calls the cops on him. But the main point of this scene is that George has a life insurance policy for $15,000.

So George runs off and does the only thing he can think of to do: have a few stiff drinks. This would be a good plan, all things considered, except: you know how George cussed out Zuzu's teacher earlier? Well, her husband decided the best way to comfort her would be by going out to the bar. So he attacks George, but he only gets in one good punch before the bar owner, Martini, tosses him out. Martini is one of the earliest residents of Bailey Park and a big fan of George.

(One of the brilliant things about these scenes is that even as they show George imagining that he's losing everything, they emphasize what he still has. As the bank examiner is demanding the B&L's books, Violet is saying, "I'm glad I know you, George Bailey." As the angry drunk is punching George in the face, Martini is calling George "my best friend.")

But George doesn't notice what Capra's trying to point out, so he wanders off and drunkenly plows his car into a tree. And then some guy comes up and yells at him about THAT, and you know. that is just the LAST STRAW, mister.

And that's how George Bailey comes to be standing on a bridge at "10:45 p.m. Earth time," holding his $15,000 life insurance policy, staring into the churning water below, and thinking about what Potter said before: "You're worth more dead than alive, George."

And then, something else falls out of the sky and into the river.

(on to Part 8)


Wonderful Life, part six: "In the whole vast configuration of things, I'd say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider!"

OK, we're gonna speed things up here, because Christmas is fast approaching and also because the next parts of the movie really just cement character traits that we already know, so here's the basic stuff that happens in this part:

  • George, it turns out, has all the work ethic that his father had, and far more business sense too, so the Building and Loan prospers.
  • George starts a whole new subdivision of low-income homeowners called Bailey Park. (Incidentally, the Potter-owned slum where most of Bailey Park's residents seem to come from is called Potter's Field, which tells me that for all his faults, Potter at least has a wicked sense of humor.)
  • From Potter's perspective, the B&L goes from being a minor annoyance to an actual threat to his business model (which seems to be "charge customers more than they can afford for less than they deserve"). So he calls in George and offers him a job for a ton more money and a lot of travel opportunities. George (who is fresh off a run-in with Sam Wainwright and his wealth) is momentarily dazzled, but he quickly recovers and gives a heartfelt speech (drink!) about how Potter thinks he can just buy everything he sees, but it won't work on ol' George Bailey, no sir.
  • George goes home, head spinning, and Mary tells him she's pregnant. Well, there goes his shot at ever skipping town. (Up in heaven, Joseph also thinks this is obvious, but Clarence is still shocked to hear it. Oh, Clarence.)
  • War were declared. Everyone in Bedford Falls helps out, in their own way - selling war bonds, sewing for the Red Cross, all that stuff you hear about the home front during WWII. Mary, now with four kids (dude!) is the super-housewife who also finds time to run the USO. Even Potter helps out by running the draft board, but as much as I'm sure he'd like to send George off to get blown up in Belgium, George's deaf ear makes him ineligible.
  • So while his friends are off winning medals and parachuting into foreign countries, George deals with the only Americans we've ever seen in popular culture who are grouchy about making sacrifices during the war. They squabble for more ration points; they ignore his air raid drills. But George keeps going, just like he always has.
  • Harry Bailey becomes the big hero, shooting down 15 enemy planes, two as they were about to go kamikaze on a ship filled with soldiers. (Remember when I said he's the guy movies usually get made about?)

On Christmas Eve, Harry Bailey is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. And that brings us to the day that George Bailey is going to kill himself.

(on to Part 7)


Wonderful Life, part five: "I've never really seen one, but that's got all the earmarks of a run."

The church doors open, and out come the newlyweds George and Mary Bailey. They hop into Ernie's cab and start making out like they invented it. It's awesome.

When they come up for air, Ernie asks them what they're going to do for their honeymoon. George has been saving up for a long time for his trip around the world, so they're just going to go to the most awesome places ever and live it up until the cash runs out. Sounds good to me, and I bet it sounds good to all the people in the street who are muttering and dashing over to the bank as fast as they can go. Yes, the Great Depression has hit Bedford Falls, because this movie never met a piece of early 20th century American history it didn't like.

George is like, better check on the Building and Loan real quick before we skip town. Mary doesn't want him to go. (Even Mary, who loves Bedford Falls as much as anyone we've seen, is trying to get away. It's George, who says he hates the place, who makes them go back to make sure everything is all right.) He pulls up short at what he sees - a locked B&L door and a silent, staring mob in front of it.

George goes, OK, OK, we're gonna get all this sorted out, and he unchains the doors and leads the mob upstairs, where they catch Uncle Billy drinking straight from the bottle. (Jeez, Uncle Billy is like 10 kinds of worthless. Also, he forgot to go to the wedding.)

So I'm a little fuzzy on this part, but it seems like what happened was that because there was a run on the bank, it (the bank), trying to grab as much cash as possible, called in a loan the B&L had, so Uncle Billy had to hand over all the cash in the building. (Can banks seriously do that?) Now they have no cash for their members, they still owe the bank money, and Potter (having already covered the bank's deposits, because he's richer than God) is trying to gain control of the B&L, telling members he'll buy their shares for 50 cents on the dollar.

(This movie is about suicide and banking. How in the world did it get branded as "sentimental"?)

George tries to give another inspirational, populist speech about standing up to Potter, reminding the people that at some point, they've all known what it's like to be under Potter's thumb, and now they'll be going right back there for a few dollars. "We can get through this thing all right. But we've got to stick together! We've got to have faith in each other!" But the crowd is like, "Dude, sticking together is for people who can afford to eat. See you in Pottersville, buddy." And they start heading toward the door.

Mary didn't want to go back, but they did, and now Mary is seeing all this. She hears his speech, and she sees to the heart of what her husband tries to do every day, and she sees it all slipping through his fingers. Mary didn't want to go back, but now she stands up, flashes the Honeymoon Wad, and calls out, "How much do you need?"

And George, relieved that he still has something to share with his neighbors ("This'll tide us over till the bank reopens!") doesn't protest. He also doesn't notice when Mary slips out.

Several hours later, the B&L staff is counting down the seconds to closing time. They've given out all the money except $2 (good thing Mrs. Davis decided she could get through the week with $17.50 instead of $20 - George kissed her on both cheeks for that), and as the clock strikes, they lock the doors and cheer and take shots of whatever Uncle Billy's been drinking because they're still in business.

(This is another banking dealie that I don't understand - don't they have to open tomorrow? How are they going to get any more money if all their members have to borrow money from them just to keep living for a week? And then: "Let's put them in the safe and see what happens." Well, what do you think is gonna happen, George? You'll come back tomorrow and still have $2, and God help you if Mrs. Davis decides she needed $20 after all.)

Anyway, George realizes with a start that this is his wedding day, and just as he's about to run out looking for Mary, she calls the B&L and asks him to come home. "What home?"

Cut to the old house where they broke those windows years ago, and from the looks of the interior, bits of the roof have broken off over the years, too. But Mary and some wacky neighbors have covered the broken windows with travel posters and set up a "bridal suite" in a few of the downstairs rooms, and there's music and a chicken roasting on a spit over a fire, and there's also (the camera pointedly notes) a bedroom. George doesn't know what to say, so they just hold each other for a while - while outside, Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver (supposedly a coincidence) serenade the couple.

"Remember the night we broke the windows in this old house?" says Mary. "This is what I wished for."

And, like Bert and Ernie, we'll take that moment to slip off and leave the lovers to their own devices.

(on to Part 6)



Wonderful Life, part four: "He's making violent love to me, Mother."

While George Bailey stays behind to work at the Building and Loan (drink!), Harry Bailey gets a football scholarship and becomes a college star. But a few years have gone by, and he's coming home from school. George and Uncle Billy meet him at the train station, but he's brought a surprise with him: Mrs. Harry Bailey.

(You know, Harry Bailey is the kind of guy movies usually get made about. Near-death experience in childhood, glamorous college career, whirlwind romance and surprise marriage - and that's not even counting what happens later.)

Anyway, George is counting on Harry to take over the Building and Loan so he can finally go off to school and to see the world, but Harry's new father-in-law has offered him some awesome job somewhere far away from Bedford Falls. But Harry loves his family, and he'll stay if only George tells him that now it's his turn.

All this is on George's mind as he studiously avoids Harry's homecoming party. Everyone is inside laughing and having a good time, and George is sitting alone, thinking about what's best for Harry and for the town. (Lord, that's so George.)So his mom comes out and reminds him that Hottie Donna Reed is back in town, which would be good for him and the town, because then the town wouldn't have to watch them moon over each other and never do anything about it.

So George goes, "All right, Mother, old Building and Loan pal - I think I'll go find a girl and do a little passionate necking." That's not my modernist paraphrase of the situation - that is a direct quote from Jimmy Stewart. It is also now my second-favorite line in a Christmas movie ever.*

But George doesn't go call on Mary. Instead, he heads for swingin' downtown Bedford Falls, where he knows he'll run into Violet Bick.

George wishes he wanted Violet. She seems exciting - the type of girl you could take around the world with you. (Or you could just leave her in Bedford Falls, and she'd find someone else the next night.) So he gives it a try, telling her about all the impossibly romantic adventures they could go on just in that one night. But he and Violet speak different languages, and he loses her at "take off our shoes and walk through the grass." Violet does many things, but she doesn't do bare feet.

I love this next part.

So George wanders aimlessly, and it's so weird how he just happens to wind up pacing in front of Mary's house. Mary fluffs her hair, puts "Buffalo Gals" on the phonograph, and invites George in. He sits on the sofa and looks miserable and answers questions in the rudest way possible, because he doesn't want to feel the way he does, and he certainly doesn't want Mary sitting there, looking the way she does, trying to get him to remember how they harmonized to "Buffalo Gals." And then the best thing ever happens.

MRS. HATCH. Mary? Who's down there with you?

MARY. It's George Bailey, Mother.

MRS. HATCH. George Bailey? What's he want?

GEORGE. Me? Nothing - I just came in to get warm.

MARY. He's making violent love to me, Mother.

HAHAHAHAHA - and THAT is my favorite line in a Christmas movie ever.

Just then, Sam Wainwright calls, because apparently he's been seeing Mary? I dunno - I never understood this part, because clearly Sam + Mary are all wrong. But it gives her an opportunity to get George's hackles up ("yes, Sam, old moss-back George") - and then Sam says he wants to talk to both of them at once.

So they put their heads together so they can both hear the phone, and their lips are almost touching so they can both speak into the receiver, and honestly I don't have any idea what Sam is saying (something about a soybean factory?) because they are so clearly attracted to each other that the tension is unbearable. It's like back in that high school gymnasium when they're devouring each other with their eyes; Mary is almost crying by the end: "I, I-I'm here, Sam," she manages.

Sam is still talking, in fact, when George drops the phone, grabs Mary by the shoulders - and starts shaking her. He grits that he's leaving, d'you hear, and he doesn't want to ever get married, not to anyone! But he's all out of bluster. "Oh, Mary, Mary, Mary ..."

And they fall into each other's arms. Looks like George will have a traveling partner on that trip around the world.

* The line that used to hold the silver medal is from Holiday Inn:
"How'd he get that far in five minutes?"
"The lady must have been willing."

(on to Part 5)


Wonderful Life, part three: "I'm gonna shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I'm gonna see the world!"

It's been 10 years since George Bailey stopped Mr. Gower from poisoning a child, and he hasn't forgotten; when adult George strides into the drugstore, one day from leaving on his big trip around the world, he discovers Gower has bought him the biggest suitcase in the place. "How about that? My old boss," he chuckles.

(Side note: my sister's favorite line in this movie is George asking for a larger suitcase in the most Jimmy Stewart-y voice ever. "I, I, I want a BIG one!")

Harry Bailey is graduating from high school today. Most of George's friends are in college, but he had to stay behind and work at the Building and Loan until he saved up the money to go. (Here's a fun drinking game you can start now: take a drink every time George has to stay behind and work at the Building and Loan. By the end of the movie, you'll be very drunk and very depressed.)

George's dad tries to convince him to stay on, but George wants to do BIG things, not insignificant stuff like running a tiny B&L in a tiny town. Mr. Bailey says the B&L is important in its own way, seeing as how it's the town's last line of defense against Potter. George is like, "Good thing you're around to keep it going, then! I'm off to drink bathtub gin with Harry's high school friends, and tomorrow I'm taking two aspirin and getting on that boat."

So off he goes to Harry's graduation party. There, he meets his old pal Mike, who's back from college and who asks George to do him a solid and make sure his kid sister Mary isn't alone all night. George mutters about baby-sitting until he sees that Little Mary Hatch has turned into Soft-Focus Hottie Donna Reed, and then there's this excellent part where they look like they're trying to eat each other up with their eyes, they're staring so hard. They dance a wacky new dance that all the kids are into called the Charleston - and honestly, the way everyone in the room is carrying on, it looks pretty fun. (My guess is that bathtub gin makes everything more fun.)

But even more fun is when a spurned would-be suitor of Mary's decides to get back at George by opening up the gymnasium floor to reveal the pool just underneath the dancing couple. George and Mary get back at him just by being themselves; they have such a good time splashing in the pool (still dancing the Charleston, by the looks of it!) that everyone else jumps in too, including the principal of the school - and eventually, the bitter suitor himself.

Later, George walks Mary home, she in a bathrobe and he in an old-timey football uniform. They harmonize badly on "Buffalo Gals" and pass by an old abandoned house. (Trivia time! The house and the song are the inspiration for the production card of My So-Called Life production company The Bedford Falls Co.) George says the boys used to make wishes on rocks thrown through the windows of the house; he demonstrates on one of only two windows left. He says his wish is to get the hell out of Bedford Falls, explore the world, do big things in big places, and never settle down.

Mary is silent for a moment. Then she picks up a rock and shatters the last unbroken window. Dude, after a throw like that, I want to marry her. "What'd you wish for?" George asks. Mary stares at him for a few seconds, then wanders off singing "Buffalo Gals." George doesn't press the point - he's just happy to be walking home with a total smokin' babe.

So, walky walk, flirty flirt, there's some business with a grouchy neighbor, and the upshot is, George accidentally steps on Mary's robe, and it slips off. She screams and flees into the bushes. George is delighted. There's some banter ("I'll call the police!" "They're down the street; they won't hear you. Plus, they'd be on my side."), but it's cut short when a car pulls up and George's Uncle Billy shouts from it, "George, come home quickly! Your father's had a stroke."

A few months later, George and Uncle Billy are standing in front of the B&L board wearing black armbands. George had to cancel his pre-college trip around the world to help out after his father's death, but he's leaving for school (you guessed it!) tomorrow. Maybe even tonight. Then Potter pipes up (Mr. Bailey let him on the board to try to shut him up about closing the place all the time) with a motion to dissolve the B&L. (So, um, guess that plan didn't work out very well.)

Potter says the place doesn't make any money because it gives loans to deadbeats, but when he starts naming off people George knows - and George knows everyone in Bedford Falls - George gets upset. Another drinking game you can start playing now is taking a drink whenever George makes an impassioned, populist speech against Potter. Man, by the end of this movie, you're gonna be schmammered.

So George and Uncle Billy go outside to wait for the board's decision and tell their staff to start getting their resumes together. But the decision comes back: the board voted to keep the B&L going! Under one condition: George has to stay on as Executive Partner. George is like, what about Uncle Billy? The board goes, "Dude, have you met Uncle Billy? Right this second he has 14 strings tied around his fingers, and one of them is to remind him to breathe."

Fair enough, sighs George - and for the third time in this section alone, he's staying behind to work at the Building and Loan.

P.S. It's pretty clear that I underestimated the number of posts I'd do on this movie, since I haven't even gotten to the Great Depression yet. Sorry! I just keep coming across scenes I love and want to describe them in detail.

(on to Part 4)

Wonderful Life, part two: "I'm gonna have three or four wives, and maybe some harems"

So, Clarence and the audience are getting their first look at our protagonist:

"That boy?" says Clarence.

OMG you are a dummy, sighs Joseph. It's 1919 in this scene, and George is 12 years old. He and his friends are sledding down a hill on snow shovels, because when George Bailey was your age they didn't have your fancy toboggans and saucers. They did have catchphrases, though ("Hee-haw!" shouts little Sammy Wainwright as he zips past), and they clearly didn't have to walk 10 miles in the snow uphill both ways to slide all the way across the pond and into the unfrozen creek, because Harry Bailey does that on his very first try.

"George saved his brother's life that day," says Joseph as we see George dive in after Harry and arrange a human chain to fish him out. The hero's reward? An infection that left him deaf in one ear.

A few months later, George is on the mend and back at his job at the drugstore. He serves ice cream to Mary and Violet, who are like 8 years old - but you can already tell that Violet is going to be trouble. She calls George "Georgie" and asks him to help her off the stool. He looks disgusted. So does Mary, who waits until George is busying himself under the counter, then whispers, "Is this the ear you can't hear anything out of? ... George Bailey, I'll love you till the day I die."

Then George pops back up and tells her that first chance he gets, he's gonna blow town and be a dashing explorer who travels the world and leaves trails of devastated women in his wake. Good choice, there, Mary.

What with all this romance, I forgot to mention that George's boss, Mr. Gower, is extremely drunk and sobbing in a corner. George noticed this as soon as he walked in (ya gotta have sharp eyes to be a good explorer!), and now he finds out why - there's a crumpled telegram on the cash register informing Gower that his son has died of the newfangled influenza.

You guys, you do not want your prescription filled by a drunk pharmacist. Gower stumbles around, unwittingly makes some pills out of POISON, and calls to George to deliver the pills. George takes the pills and runs off to ask his dad what to do.

Dad is at the Bailey Building and Loan, arguing about something or other with Potter. You all know Potter. You all hate Potter. So does George Bailey - he blows up at the old man and Dad tosses him out before he can ask whether he should deliver poison to a kid with diphtheria. Luckily, he decides on his own that the answer is no.

When George returns to the shop, Gower grabs him and starts throwing him around, demanding to know why he got a call from the family saying they didn't get their pills. He smacks George on his infected ear, which starts bleeding. "Don't you know that boy's very sick?" he shouts. Gower knows how it feels to have a sick child.

Through the blows, George finally gets out that the pills are poison - "I know you didn't mean it, you just feel bad about the telegram" - and thrusts them at Gower. Gower tastes one, and even though it's a black-and-white film, you can see his face go ashen. He falls to his knees - "Don't hit my ear again!" shrieks George - and throws his arms around the kid. They're both crying. (So am I, again. This movie!) "I'll never tell anyone," George vows.

So, within a couple months, at the age of 12, George Bailey saved two lives. Surely even Clarence can handle this case, right?

(on to Part 3)

Wonderful Life, part one: "He's got the IQ of a rabbit!"

We open on the town of Bedford Falls, where we hear prayers from all over town: all for George Bailey. "George is a good guy," says Ernie the cabbie. "Give him a break, God." (Already I'm tearing up a little - pull it together, Hudson!)

These prayers soar up to - heaven? It looks like outer space. God and St. Joseph are represented by star clusters, and they discuss the part that everyone remembers: George Bailey is about to kill himself, and Clarence Oddbody is the guardian angel who's got to stop him. What people might not remember is that Clarence is a bit of a screwup (he's been trying to earn his wings for two centuries!), and Joseph doesn't think they should entrust him with something as important as a man's life. Space God thinks Clarence's faith will see him through.

So they call over Clarence (represented by a tiny star), and he's happy for the opportunity. He's got an hour before George bites it, and he thinks the most important thing to do with that hour is to dress to blend in with the 1940s folks he'll be meeting. Joseph is like, "Seriously, dude? No, you're going to watch this movie of the life of George Bailey so you'll know how to deal with him when you do meet him. You're going to tell him you're a 200-year-old wingless angel anyway - may as well be dressed like a visitor from colonial Williamsburg while you're at it. No wonder you're still AS2."

(I like how Joseph is pretty much only in this scene, but you still get a sense of how exasperated he is with Clarence. Space God says pretty much the same thing, but he's much gentler about it.)

The screen goes dark: we're seeing from Clarence's point of view, and apparently the watching-movies-of-people's-lives power comes with having wings. Joseph, a little sarcastically, helps Clarence see, and gradually the picture comes into focus: George Bailey as a 12-year-old boy.

(on to Part 2)


Holiday blog project: It's a Wonderful Life

The holiday season is upon us in earnest, and so I've decided to do a little project to get the ol' blog muscles pumping again. I'm going to do a series of posts recapping It's a Wonderful Life.

This is a movie that gets unfairly categorized as "saccharine drivel" (ahem, Dan) because the only part of it anyone remembers is the happy ending, which is meaningless if you don't recall the heartbreaking story that got us there.

It's a story about a man who gave up everything he always wanted to do because he couldn't let other people down, couldn't let Goliath beat David, and so he watched his peers vault past him and get the adventures and experience that were rightfully his. He tried to be happy with his lot, and for a time he was. And then one day, Goliath cheated to win.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'll probably do five or six posts on the movie, so watch this space.

EDIT. Here's my series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10