Chances are good that at some point this Christmas you sat down to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, or at least caught some of it. It’s part of the pop-culture background noise of the season.
This wasn’t always the case. It debuted in 1946 to mixed reviews and failed to turn a profit. Some critics knocked it as sentimental and overly religious and accused director Frank Capra of presenting a cartoonishly idealized version of small-town life. Not until the mid-’70s, when a clerical error prevented renewal of the film’s copyright, allowing TV networks to broadcast it royalty-free, did it become enshrined as a Christmas classic.
Recently my friend Rod Bennett, author of our bestseller The Apostasy that Wasn’t and an astute cultural observer, offered another reason why the film struggled to find an audience. He noted that its villain, Henry Potter, was played by Lionel Barrymore, who was widely known for portraying Ebenezer Scrooge in an annual radio broadcast of A Christmas Carol. The similarities between the two wealthy, miserly, black-hearted characters (and those between virtuous paupers George Bailey and Bob Crachet) would have been obvious to anyone.
What’s more, in each story an angel presents visions of alternate-reality Christmases as part of his mission. You couldn’t fault theatergoers in 1946 if they were expecting an updated, Americanized version of Dickens’s classic.
But that’s not what they got. Scrooge and Potter trace decidedly different arcs. Whereas Scrooge is moved to amend his life, Potter’s soul remains as cold as ever. Not only is he not converted at the end, he doesn’t even face justice for stealing money from the Baily Building and Loan and setting up George to take the fall for it. He gets off scot-free and remains as evil and powerful as ever (an unsatisfying point that satirists have noted). No wonder, as Rod shared in a Facebook post, audiences walked out of the film “scratching their heads.”
They were expecting a conversion, you see, but they were looking in the wrong place.
Just a man
Early in the film, a series of flashbacks brings the angel Clarence (and the viewer) up to speed on George’s life history and his character. “I like George Bailey,” Clarence exclaims, and so do we: he’s brave and generous, romantic and zealous for life; he dreams big but isn’t full of himself. Above all he is dutiful and self-giving. He is no Scrooge.
All his life, George does for others. He’s the one who steps up and takes problems on his back. He jumps into a frozen lake to save his brother’s life and in the process loses hearing in one ear. He alone can intervene to prevent Mr. Gower from making a deadly error with a prescription—and gets slapped around for it. He puts off travel and college when his father dies suddenly and takes over the building and loan when no one else will. He sacrifices his honeymoon funds to keep the business afloat during a run on the bank. He’s a type of Suffering Servant: whenever there’s a crisis, he bears the personal cost to solve it.
Nonetheless, he’s just a man. Eventually his work and sacrifice will not be enough, and he himself will need saving. But when, despite his industrious efforts, on Christmas Eve everything comes to the verge of collapsing (through his uncle’s absentmindedness and Potter’s malevolence), he responds not by humbly seeking help from those who love him—indeed, he rejects the support of his family, thinking himself an unlovable failure—but by resolving to commit suicide for the insurance money.
At his lowest point he manages to mutter a drunken prayer—“Please, God, if you’re out there, show me the way”—but is punched in the mouth. Shrugging off the pleas of his friends, he hardens his heart (“That’s what I get for praying”), fumbles for his insurance policy, and heads off to the nearest high bridge.
A myth of self-sufficiency
So wrapped up is he in his Pelagian notion of self-sufficiency, so resistant is he to the reception of free grace, that he plans to meet this final problem with a final solution, asserting mastery over that which belongs to God alone: his life.
But like Scrooge he is visited by an angel; not, as for the old miser, to scare him into altruism, but rather to break his resistance, to jolt him out of a hyper-selflessness that precludes God’s help. “I’m the answer to your prayer,” Clarence assures him.
But George can’t process it, not just because the little fellow makes an unconvincing angel but because he has isolated himself from grace. There are no answers to prayer, he believes—there is only solitary and ultimately fruitless toil.
Having reached the end of his own powers to save, and thus having despaired of being saved himself, George needs the medicine Clarence brings him: proof of the action of grace. Only when he sees all the good he has done—its many effects hidden, connected, amplified through time—is he able to open himself to the goodness of others and to return to God due sovereignty over his life.
I want to live again.
Please, God, let me live again.
Like Job, after his time of trial George reaps a just man’s reward. Through no agency of his own but only by the free gifts of those who love him, his fortunes are restored and then some—he becomes “the richest man in town.” The riches are literally heaped before him he stands passive beside the Christmas tree; his mind no longer whirring with anxious schemes but at rest, his heart no longer filled with frustrated longing but only gratitude.
This is the conversion story of It’s a Wonderful Life. This is the lesson for all of us who, as we strive in this world, are tempted to trust our own powers and despair of our failures. This is also the paradox of Christianity: that we must instead place ourselves wholly in the care of a babe in a manger.This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.