Whose Life is Wonderful? Examining George’s Disappointments and the Mistreatment of Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life
The plot of the much-loved Christmas film It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) is well known. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, is in trouble. After a life spent serving his town and his family, helping others at the expense of his own happiness and desires, he is filled with despair and contemplates taking his own life. An angel, Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent down from heaven to save him. The uplifting end of the film, in which the entire town of Bedford Falls comes together to help George, has contributed to its reputation as an exemplary Christmas film. However, I would argue that rather than being categorised as the ideal Christmas film, It's a Wonderful Life is better identified by two issues: the disappointment of George and the mistreatment of Mary (Donna Reed). By looking at the film in terms of these two issues, the question of whose life is wonderful can be further explored and a much more positive, happy ending suggested.
For much of the movie, George Bailey's life isn't particularly wonderful. As a child, he saves the life of his brother, Harry, who had fallen through thin ice. Following his heroic act, George caught in an ear infection that resulted in permanent damage to his ear when, a few days later, he is beaten when he stops the pharmacist from sending out pills that contain poison. The consequences for risking his life and saving others reverberate throughout George's life: his ear damage meant he couldn't join the other men leaving Bedford Falls to fight in World War II, so he missed out on the glory they experienced (that he also missed out on the risk to his life was not acknowledged in the film; none of the boys from Bedford Falls appear to have died or suffered permanent harm from their wartime experiences). To add insult to injury, Harry receives the Congressional Medal of Honour for his service in World War II, while George's everyday sacrifices and acts of kindness are unrewarded, unappreciated and unremarked upon.
The many disappointments George experiences are reflected in the ambivalence of Frank Capra's film towards the institutions that structure life in the small town of Bedford Falls. For example, the family is not a site of comfort and love but rather a cloying, oppressive source of obligation and resentment. George's family obligations require him to give up his dreams of travelling so that he can continue his father's work in the Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan while his brother goes to college. Work, rather than being a source of identity and strength through which masculinity is reinforced, instead involves doing a stressful job that he hates. Further, the institutions themselves are shown to be incredibly fragile – without the lone figure of George Bailey protecting the town, society collapses and is completely overrun with drunkenness and neon signage.
One thing the film is not ambivalent about is the figure of Mary. Shown as being in love with George from the time she was a child, Mary's sole role in the film is to support George. Sure, she goes away to school but for no discernible reason other than that it's a place she can come back from, to return to George. George is fairly horrible to Mary in much of their on-screen interaction. His wedding proposal is yelled at her after he hears her talking to another man on the phone. When he has an awful day at work, he comes home to the house that she has made beautiful and takes his anger and frustration out on her and their children. She is yet another thing preventing him from achieving happiness – he turns down a risky job in plastics for a secure job in the Building and Loan so he could support his family, but it later emerges that because of the wartime demand for plastic, he would have been wealthy if he had taken it. Mary may be beautiful, capable and loving, but for George she is just another thing holding him back (while, of course, facilitating his lifestyle through her unpaid and unappreciated labour).
I can't remember watching It's a Wonderful Life for the first time. From my earliest Christmases, it has just been there, a Hollywood Christmas staple. I love it dearly, for many reasons: that it is popularly referred to as being heartwarming but instead is full of bleakness and hopelessness; for its cartoon villain and adorable angel; and that that the Muppets Bert and Ernie get their names from the film's policeman and taxi driver respectively. I watch it every year at Christmas time, usually doing something else while the nasally tones of Jimmy Stewart sound their optimism, defeat and hopelessness in the background. However, there is one aspect of the film that I have always visualised in a different way. What if, instead of devoting her life to a grouchy, unhappy man, Mary lived a different type of existence, where her intelligence was utilised and her contribution valued? What if, as in the Potterville dystopia, Mary used her education and training to become a librarian? What if, without George, hers in fact is the wonderful life?
Picture this. Mary leaves the library, locking the door behind her. At first, she wears the harried look of anyone who deals with the public on the day before Christmas, but as she walks the few short blocks home, the clean white snow and crisp winter air bring roses to her cheeks and the tension leaves her body. Mary lives at Ma Bailey's Boarding House and she knew that Ma had planned a special feast for her boarders to celebrate Christmas. Like Mary, the other women who stayed at the boarding house worked for a living and the evening meals that were included with the cost of board were a great source of comfort and support for all of them (not to mention being very delicious). As she walks up the front steps, the door was flung open and one friend took her coat while another pressed eggnog into her hand. In the background, there was the sound of laughter and Christmas carols playing on the Victrola. The atmosphere was festive, happy and full of enjoyment and love.
After dinner, the festivities continued. In honour of the following day's public holiday, bottles of champagne had been popped. Another boarder, Violet, who worked in the Bedford Falls record store, had brought home with her the latest records and the furniture had been pushed to one side of the room so the women could dance. Mary, however, had other plans for her night. Without drawing attention to herself, she slipped quietly away to her room. Changing into her softest flannel pyjamas, she poured herself a brandy from the bottle her boss had given her for Christmas in appreciation of all of her hard work during the year and climbed into bed. With great pleasure she opened the blockbuster novel she had hidden under the loans desk and told all of the library's patrons was borrowed. Settling herself into her soft down pillows, Mary smiled. She had a job she loved where she was appreciated by the patrons and the management, she lived in a lovely home with other single working women and she didn't have anyone in her life berating her when they didn't fix the banister like they said they would or taking out their bad moods on her. It really was a lovely life. The end.