Tuesday, December 16, 2014

10 Things I Learn from "It's a Wonderful Life"

1. Flirting should be funny.

One of my favorite lines from the movie is when ol' what's-her-name (the blonde bombshell) is walking down the sidewalk and George compliments her dress. With attitude, she retorts, "this old thing? Well I only wear it when I don't care how I look." Her confidence in that moment makes me want to make her my very best friend.

2. Take some chances while you're young.

George is walking Mary home after their enchanting and fun evening together. They've been flirting for hours but nobody has really made a move. They get in front of a house with a voyeur on the front porch who watches them for a while, growing visibly annoyed that the chemistry is amounting to nothing. Finally he calls out to them, telling George to kiss her already. Obviously anxious, George hesitates and fails to do anything at all. The man on the porch irritatingly grunts that "youth is wasted on the wrong people" before storming back into the house.

3. It's never a bad time to tell your parents that you appreciate them.

George is sitting at the table with his dad, not knowing that it would be their last conversation. Dad tells George that he hopes that George will consider taking over the family business. George tells dad that he just can't imagine that that's the life for him. Dad is disappointed, but understands. And then George leans in and says in a sweet and sincere voice, "pop, you want a shock? I think you're a great guy." George then yells to Annie in the kitchen, realizing that she's been eavesdropping on the conversation, "did you hear that, Annie?!" She yells back, "I heard it! 'bout time one of you lunkheads said it!" It's a heartwarming exchange that probably happens too rarely in real life.

4. The cops in Bedford Falls don't mess around.

This scene catches me off guard every time. George is running away from the cop in the busy town street and the cop immediately pulls out his gun and starts firing on the public. THIS DOES NOT MAKE ANY SENSE.

5. Be with someone who knows how to sacrifice for others.

It's my favorite scene from the whole movie. George and Mary have just gotten married. They are heading off on their honeymoon with all of the cash they have to their names. They are as excited for the travels as they've ever been for anything. But just before they get out of town, they find out there are troubles at the old family business. People are panicking and trying to get their money from the Bailey Building and Loan Association.

George confronts the scared crowds and tries to help them understand how the business works and that they all just need to calm down. The people aren't comforted by this and a crying woman explains that she needs to have some money so she can get by. Hearing this, Mary, who is standing in the background, pulls out the entire wad of cash and asks without any hesitation, "how much do you need?!" George and Mary divvy out all of their money, save two dollars, giving up their honeymoon to be able to do so. A lot of people would have been upset by this, but Mary shows no frustration at all. She makes the best of the situation and creates a charming honeymoon replacement in a dilapidated house across town. She is my hero in that moment.

6. Money doesn't make you rich in the ways that matter.

It's a beautiful irony in the film. George has to learn a lesson about what matters in life and he seems to not learn it until the very end. Except that he teaches the message very early on in the movie when he tells off Mr. Potter, meaning that he actually knew it all along but maybe just forgot to apply it to himself.

Greedy Mr. Potter is sitting around the table with the business folks in the aftermath of the death of George's father. Mr. Potter preaches the bottom line and suggests that the Baileys' business is an absurd way to try to make money. George sees this as a character attack and tells Mr. Potter off, explaining that to his father, this was never about making money. It was about helping people who needed help. Filled with emotion, George yells to Mr. Potter from across the table that his father succeeded in life and that maybe he didn't have much money, but "he died a much richer man than you'll ever be!"

7. In 1946, Hollywood didn't even attempt to make older actors look the age of their character.

Look at this picture and tell me right now that 38-year-old Jimmy Stewart adequately passed for someone who was supposed to be 21 in this scene.

8.  Angels apparently look like galaxies.

9. The amount of money it pays is usually a terrible exclusive reason for taking a job.

Sure there come times when desperation makes compensation feel like the only relevant factor in whether or not a job should be accepted. But George isn't desperate when Mr. Potter offers him a job that would pay him an absurd amount of money compared to what he is earning running the family business. George is making enough to support his family, but not enough to stay in fancy hotels and buy a lot of nice things. And the offer from Mr. Potter to take on a job that would make the fancy hotels and nice things a reality for the Baileys is enticing at first blush.

Then George remembers the cost of taking a job from the greediest man in town. A job that would pull George away from the business that saves the people from becoming enslaved to Mr. Potter. The cost would be George's soul and the town's security. And he can't get himself to do it. I think the most interesting part about this scene is that you can tell that George is so angry that taking the job isn't a better decision for him. It's as though he wants morality to be different. This is, of course, because he hasn't yet fully realized the things that make life wonderful.

10. Life is made wonderful by what you give, not receive.

George is a valiant man who sacrifices his life repeatedly to help others. He is determined to be dissatisfied with this for a very long time. All he wants to do is explore the world. Add stickers from various countries to his suitcase. Go to college to "see what they know." Move to the biggest cities. Drink the most expensive champagne. He knows exactly what he wants.

Just one problem. Every time he's about to go and get exactly what he's dreamed about, he realizes that he's needed in Bedford Falls. So he postpones the life of adventure and continues to live a life of mundane. Years go by. He marries the woman he's expected to marry in the town they'll never leave. They have the children they're supposed to have. George continues to run the family business he hates, which business has never been very good at making any money at all. And finally, after his well-meaning but flaky uncle misplaces $8,000 and George realizes that he may go to jail over this, he finally snaps. He yells at his family. He runs off to a bridge to kill himself. He is so distraught over the disappointment his life has turned out to be.

Then the angel comes along and shows George what Bedford Falls would be like if George had never been born. It's a terrible place. The people George loves are calloused sad shadows, living without the benefit of George's years of charity. George's heart breaks at the sight.

Somewhere in this trip through some parallel universe, it finally clicks for George. He realizes that what makes you happy is not what the world has to give you, but what you can bring to it. It occurs to him that his life is wonderful not because he was able to go to Rome and make his millions in New York City. His life is wonderful because of his mother, and Mary, and his brother, and his children, and because of all of things he has been able to do to enrich their lives. His life is wonderful because he is able to use the family business to help people who desperately need help. His life is wonderful because, although challenging, it has given him the opportunity to learn how to be selfless.

George runs back to his family and kisses and hugs them, so happy to have what he sort of forgot he had. Then, even though he no longer cares all that much about the missing money, the people of Bedford Falls begin to pour into the house, emptying their pockets in front of an overwhelmed and emotional George who is now witnessing an entire town of folks who are jumping at the chance to save their hero. The hero who has never really done a thing for himself in his mundane, disappointing, boring, sad, wonderful life.

Bonus: SNL gives us an alternate ending here.

~It Just Gets Stranger


  1. I love this movie. And your interpretation of it.


  2. Dude, you should have put "SPOILER ALERT" at the top! I was thinking I might get around to seeing this movie at some point in my life. Maybe this year, probably next or whatever. Now the suspense is gone. Thanks for nothing, pal.

    1. Or did I totally mischaracterize the ending to throw you off? HMMMM???

  3. Can we be friends? I love this movie so, so much, and I love your thoughts on it!

  4. Make me cry at work, whydontcha!

  5. Studio C gives us this take on the movie: http://youtu.be/6u5Ylj9Bpb4

    1. This comment made me feel better that I too teared up at this description of It's A Wonderful Life!

  6. Thanks for including the clips!

  7. Possibly the best movie ever made.

  8. We are going to be spending Christmas week in the West (Salt Lake) and I was wondering if you are going to be telling your fabulous stories anywhere or if you happen to have extra room in your new home? There is only five of us so we wouldn't be much trouble. Just message me back and I will forward you my food requests. Thanks!

  9. One of my very favorite movies of all time.

    But I love that alternate ending. Because it has ALWAYS bugged me that nothing happens to Potter in the end.

  10. So, I was present for a couple of your Sunday School lessons at the City Creek this past summer and I thought to myself, this is a cool guy. And then you played the organ in sacrament meeting afterwards and I thought, geez, he's kind of a rockstar. And then I fortunately 'came across' your blog pretty soon after that and yes, you've maintained that rockstar status. I'm just saying, generally when I'm having a crappy kind of day, I go for some tunes and some chocolate and then I realize, I haven't read Eli's blog in a while. And so I tune in and you have miraculously written the exact thing I need to hear at that moment. It's uncanny, or unMccanny or something. This is just a giant thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for your wit, your raw humanity, and your timely and thoughtful insights. They are so appreciated.

    You know how Time Magazine has their Top 100 Most Influential People each year? Well, I thought that this year I would make my own. Haha. And you, kind sir, along with my grandma and Jimmy Fallon, do make an appearance on said list. (This kinda reminds me of that moment when Michael Scott lists off the influential people in his life: "People I respect, heroes of mine would be Bob Hope, um, Abraham Lincoln, definitely. Bono, uh and probably God, would be the fourth one and I just think all those people really, uh, helped the world in so many ways that it's, um, it's really beyond words. It's really incalculable.")

    It's incalculable, Eli. Incalculable. Thanks again ;)