Thursday, December 28, 2017

George Bailey, The Everyman's Holiday Hero

Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life is a yearly holiday tradition for me; I faithfully watch it every Christmas Eve. As someone who often suffers from melancholy and sadness during this supposedly joyful time of the year—and I know I am not alone—I look forward to this film as an annual year-end experience of personal catharsis and healing.

The hero’s journey taken by protagonist George Bailey, played with such natural grace by the great James Stewart, has a lot in common with the odyssey each and every one of us takes year after year in real life, with its fears and shadows as well as magical little moments of love and joy.

Life is hard and filled with challenges for everyone, rich and poor alike. How Stewart’s George Bailey handles the slings and arrows is real, imperfect, heartbreaking, but ultimately an enlightening and redemptive experience.

James Stewart as George Bailey

Nominated for five Academy Awards and cited by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, with beautifully written script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (Diary of Anne Frank, Father of the Bride) and directed by the great Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town), It’s a Wonderful Life is about as far from a lighthearted holiday romp as you can get. It is a very dark and disturbing tale of suicide and bankruptcy and broken dreams. Indeed, it was a box office failure when it first premiered during the 1946 holiday season.

But at the film’s climax, the darkness and cynicism give way to light and hope—director Capra gives his audiences a heartwarming conclusion that has the power to rekindle even a long burnt-out faith. Often accused of over-the-top sentimentalism, Frank Capra’s steadfast idealism is as relevant and practical today as it was in post-WWII America. Little things like kindness and gentleness don’t just mean a lot, they are everything.  And we need happy endings.

The story is iconic. On Christmas Eve, a discouraged and desperate small town man is at the end of his rope. A miraculous series of events changes his life and attitude forever.  At the apex of the story is the character of George Bailey, played by James Stewart.

Bobby Anderson as Young George

Lionel Barrymore as Potter

Stewart was 38 years old when he made It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946, but believably plays the character of George over a span of nearly 20 years. He had already been a top Hollywood star for more than a decade, having won an Academy Award for his role as the sardonic yet bighearted Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story in 1940.

Beloved by movie audiences as an everyman, (indeed, he had already proven himself the ideal Capra leading man in the title role of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Stewart was the perfect actor to bring to life the flawed character of small town denizen George Bailey, acting as a stand-in for every audience member who ever felt trapped in his or her own life, cheated of dreams that did not come true despite their best efforts. 

Stewart’s Oscar-worthy performance was recognized by the Academy, and he deservedly received one of his five Best Actor nominations for the role of George Bailey. It was the actor’s most mature and intense work to date, and served as a gateway to more serious mature roles to come, including four Hitchcock classics culminating in Vertigo.

Henry Travers as Clarence Oddbody (AS2)
Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy
Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey

As the wise director did in all his great films, Capra surrounds his leading man with a brilliant ensemble of skilled character actors who bring the story to vivid life with their unforgettable performances. Lionel Barrymore (Dinner at Eight, Grand Hotel), eldest of the famed acting dynasty, brother to John and Ethel and great uncle to Drew, is evil personified as the cruel and miserly Mr. Potter; Henry Travers (The Bells of St. Mary's) has a scene stealing turn as Clarence the angel, adding a bit of humorous leavening to the proceedings; Thomas Mitchell (Gone With the Wind, Pocketful of Miracles) is dotty Uncle Billy, and Beulah Bondi (Make Way for Tomorrow, Tammy and the Doctor) is George’s sweet mother. Lovely Donna Reed (From Here to Eternity), is, of course, perfect as George's faithful wife.

I’m not usually fan of young actors portraying the star in flashback, but the device works well here in the prologue, where Young George played by Robert J. Anderson (The Bishop's Wife) is responsible for my first flood of tears, when his ears are boxed by a drunken, grieving H.B. Warner (King of Kings).

Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey

All the great actors’ fine moments in this film are too numerous to mention, but Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, Sheldon Leonard, Lillian Randolph, Frank Faylen and Todd Karnes each contribute to the iconic moments that tug at the heart and make us smile.

At the center, though, is James Stewart’s intense and complex performance as the conflicted George Bailey. Despite George’s heart of gold, his easy charm, sense of humor, kindness and generosity, the odds seem stacked against him and his gradual descent into bitterness and despair takes the audience on a journey into their own souls, their own gallery of deep disappointments and unrequited desires.

"Merry Christmas!"

The moment near the end of the picture where George bows his head and prays, sobbing “I want to live again” triggers the same reaction in me year after year; I am choked up and awash with tears, every time, never fails. Perhaps it’s my way of letting go of the frustrations and disappointments and pain of the previous year and facing the new one with some hope and optimism, grateful to have friends, family, a roof over my head, etc.

For me and millions of others, It’s a Wonderful Life provides an annual ritual of release, a good cry that leaves us feeling happy, refreshed and ready to face the world anew as the New Year dawns. That’s more than enough to make James Stewart, Frank Capra and company inspiring heroes in my book.

This blog is part of the Inspiring Heroes Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and Hamlette’s Soliloquy. Happy holidays, and best wishes to all for a joyous new year.


  1. I too have a tradition of watching that movie on Christmas Eve. The rest of my family were not always so enamored of it however. On several occasions I took our old decrepit tiny B&W TV into my bedroom to watch it while the rest of the family watched whatever holiday special the other stations chose to pit against it. (Nothing that attracted my attention, but I never was much for musical extravaganzas or any of the other fare the others offered.) I preferred the "sentimental hogwash" as Mr. Potter called it, of George Bailey's life. Great review./

  2. Hi Quiggy, thanks so much for the opportunity to write about this movie! It’s true, this movie is not for people that are afraid of does pull at the heartstrings, which is exactly what Capra intends!
    I always appreciate your support! Happy New Year!
    - Chris

  3. Lovely tribute. Capra was a supreme cinematic storyteller, and made a true masterpiece in It's a Wonderful Life. We need the reminder of George Bailey's trials and triumphs. It becomes dearer and more necessary as time passes.

  4. Hi Caftan Woman, thank you so much for stopping by! I agree totally, we need kindness, gentleness love and community, now more than ever!
    - C

  5. Hey Chris, Always find other people's takes on classic movies. I didn't put it on this year, but the holiday isn't over yet!

    Hope your holidays were fine with or without the cathartic Capra touch!

    Your look at the cast made me realize "Life" has to have one of the best ensemble casts ever.

    Take care and have a great 2018!


  6. Hi Rick, happy new year!
    The thing I love best about ALL classic era movies is that the character actors roles were as important and integral to the storytelling as the leads. As you say, it created an ensemble effect and a depth that most of today’s films fail to capture.
    Thank you as always for stopping by! I look forward to enjoying your marvelous Real/Reel Lifeblog in 2018!
    - Chris

  7. I'm in the middle of reading the book Hank and Jim. The book posits that after WWII both Fonda and Stewart had a hard time readjusting to regular Hollywood life after their intense and dangerous years of service. This is reflected in the parts they chose to play after their return. Particularly with Stewart, whose films (like this one) had more of an edge to them than they had previously. Love your post by the way! This one never fails to inspire while making me cry.

  8. Hi Brittaney—I need to get a copy of that book too, it looks wonderful, saw it at Barnes and Noble the other day...and a very good point about the post war era changing stars like Fonda and Stewart.
    Thank you so much for stopping by! Happy New Year!
    - Chris

  9. It’s been one of the most interesting biographies I’ve ever read. I can’t seem to put it down. It weaves in details with a great exposition of each man’a personality without becoming dry. I recommend it. Happy New Year’s to you.

  10. Like you, I watch this film every year, and I cry every time I see it. Jimmy Stewart's performance is incredible, as you pointed out – his youthful optimism that is slowly ground away, leaving a desperate, cynical man. His performance is powerful, and it makes George Bailey a haunting and memorable character. Perfect choice for this blogathon. :)

  11. Hi Silver Screenings, thanks so much for coming by and commenting!
    It is indeed a powerhouse of a performance by James Stewart...I love your description of "his youthful optimism that is slowly ground away" brilliantly and eloquently put. And Stewart continued to grow as an actor, into the 1950s and 1960s...he really is one of my all time favorites.
    Happy New Year!

  12. Really fantastic post! This is a holiday favorite of mine as well. It never fails to make me grin, laugh, and cry (okay, it's really more like a sob). This film truly is a masterpiece -- it might even be Capra's best. And Jimmy Stewart is just stunning, as you so eloquently pointed out.

  13. Happy New Year, Michaela, and thank you so much for reading and commenting!
    I agree that it may well be Capra’s best, but he is a master of many masterpieces!
    Thanks again for visiting!
    - Chris

  14. Another beautiful piece, Chris, on a beautiful movie! You see new things on each viewing. That George is a flawed hero only makes him more interesting. I think I first saw this when I was in college or maybe high school, on television, and I was impressed with its quality even then. You captured this well in your usual fine style.

    Happy New Year -- Bill!

  15. Happy New Year, Bill, thanks as always for your kind words and support. Like you, my first time seeing this was not until college, at the dawning of the Blockbuster video era. For many decades, this film had fallen out of favor and was not the institution it has become today, it was nowhere near as popular as all the Christmas Carol remakes. In fact, I think my original introduction to this story was a tv remake starring Marlo Thomas in the George role, and Orson Welles as Potter!
    Looking forward to a new year full of Great Old Movies via your prolific blog!
    - Chris

  16. Wonderful tribute to this magnificent film! I recently read an essay on the film noir elements within IAWL, and it really resonated with me. There's so much tragedy and cynicism here... but not celebrated or embraced like it usually is in noir, rather the characters accept that those are part of life, but don't need to be the most important part.

  17. Hi Hamlette, thank you so much for cohosting another amazing Blogathon! And yes, so true about the elements of film noir in this movie—the entire second half until he is returned to his dark, shadowy...from the circles under his eyes with the tinsel on his head, to the dark cold forbidding snow and water, to Martinis rough dive has so many of the noir tropes...
    Happy happy new year!
    - Chris

  18. Hi, Angelman and Happy New Year! I loved reading this and always like to read about peoples' emotional reactions to films, classic ones in particular. There's something strangely comforting and cathartic about letting a great, skillfully-made old movie wring the tears from our eyes. As I see it, they bring our humanity to the surface in those poignant moments and I'm grateful for that. This happens to me quite often when I immerse myself in a movie from this general time frame that had escaped me before (such as "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" or "I Remember Mama.") I get excited when I stumble upon another one. I don't watch IAWL every Christmas, but this post makes me want to. :-)

  19. It's so nice to know that you have some kind of healing ritual of It's a Wonderful Life!
    Earlier this year I wrote about how we must fight the Mr. Potters we meet every day - greedy people who don't care for others' feelings. I think that, if we are a little like George Bailey - and certainly Capra and Stewart and the screenwriters built him to be a believable character - maybe we'll triumph in the end.
    Cheers! And thanks for the kind comment!

  20. Hi Le - I just ran across your comment now; blogger has not been sending me notices for new comments.

    I am going to your blog now to read your Wonderful Life post!