"It's A Wonderful Life" - A Commentary

Fr. Peter West
Priest Associate, Priests for Life
January 01, 2005

Director Frank Capra’s movie "It’s a Wonderful Life" is a Christmas classic and one of the best movies ever made. This is a movie with an important message – that one person’s life has a profound effect on the lives of others. The hero of the story gets a chance to see what the world would have been like if he had never been born.  The underlying message of the movie is pro-life without being preachy.

George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is a talented young man with great ambitions, seemingly stuck in a small town due mainly to the moral obligation he feels to save a struggling Building and Loan formerly run by his father.  The Building and Loan is the only alternative in town to a bank run by the miserly Henry Potter.   Mr. Potter is the richest and meanest man in town. He uses his wealth to exploit the people of Bedford Falls and keep them poor.  George Bailey’s Building and Loan helps the poor, many of them new immigrants, to rise out of poverty and live decent lives.   It’s the only institution in town that Potter doesn’t own and he’ll do anything to get it.  

George's Uncle Billy who helps run the Building and Loan loses $8000 due to carelessness.   Potter has the moneybut instead of returning it, he uses the opportunity to accuse George of financial malfeasance. Facing potential ruin and scandal, George Bailey contemplates suicide. God hears the prayers of family and friends for him by sending him an angel named Clarence.  Joseph, his superior, promises he will get his wings if his mission to save George Bailey is successful. Clarence promptly jumps in a freezing river knowing that George will instinctively jump in after him to save him. Thus he saves George from committing suicide.   

After George tells the Clarence that he wishes he was never born, the angel sees that his wish is granted.   In a flashback earlier, we see George saving his younger brother Harry after he falls through the ice. Later, Harry shoots down a plane aimed at a troop transport ship saving all those on board. 

We also see George working in a drug store helping his boss Mr. Gower.  Mr. Gower is distracted by a telegram informing him of the loss of his son.  Without realizing it, he puts poison in a bottle of medicine which he asks George to deliver.  In his sorrow he beats George when George tells him he has not delivered the prescription.  When George is able to tell Mr. Gower of the terrible mistake he has made, he breaks down and asks George's forgiveness.

But since George was never born, Harry dies as at the age of nine.  All the troops on the ship die since Harry was not there to save them.  Mr. Gower is sent to prison for poisoning a child. The Building and Loan failed years ago and George’s Uncle Billy is sent to a mental institution after suffering a nervous breakdown. The town of Bedford Falls has been renamed Pottersville and has become decadent. The people there live in poverty with little hope of a better life.

At firstGeorge can’t believe what the angel is telling him; that he is seeing the world as if he did not exist.  But when no one in Pottersville recognizes him not even his mother or wife, he realizes that Clarence is telling him the truth.  He longs to have his old life back. He prays to the Father in heaven and is heard. His old life is restored. He still has problems but now he sees things in a different light.  

George goes back into town, ready to face whatever may come, but he is helped by his wife and the multitude of friends he has made through the years because of his kindness. His friends come to the house and contribute money to help George an the Building and Loan to overcome the financial crisis.  Even the bank examiner, who had come to close the Building and Loan and the sheriff who had come to arrest him contribute to the fund and join the happy gathering in singing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing".   George now realizes that he is not a failure.   He had judged his life by the wrong standards. Now he sees things clearly.   Now he understands what a gift his life is and how his life has touched the lives of so many others.  His brother Harry toasts George as the richest man in town.   A bell rings and George's youngest daughter announces that each time a bell rings an angel gets his wings! 

"It’s a Wonderful Life" didn’t impress critics and actually lost over $500,000 when it was first released in 1946, but has gone on to be a Christmas classic and seen by millions through re-runs on TV.   Frank Capra didn’t care what the "sophisticated" critics thought. He made it for the people.  Both he and Jimmy Stewart considered it the best movie they ever made.

The basic message of the film is that life is a tremendous gift from God. Everyone’s life is important because it touches so many other lives.

A popular pro-life cartoon has a man praying to God asking him why he hasn’t sent people to cure cancer, AIDS, hunger, poverty, etc. Then God replies and says "I sent you those people, but you aborted them".

We have lost over 44 million babies to abortion since 1973 in the United States alone. Who have we lost?  Artists, musicians, directors, scientists, educators, business leaders, doctors, political and religious leaders and many more.  Maybe people who would have thwarted terrorist attacks. Critics might say we’ve also eliminated many criminals as well, but this would be an extremely cynical point of view. In our system of justice we consider someone innocent until proven guilty. Shouldn’t we give innocent babies a chance to make a contribution to our society before sentencing them to death?

God alone is the Master of life.  Only God has the power to give life.  Only God has a right to take an innocent human life to Himself.    Life is a precious gift. Every life has more influence on the lives of others than we realize.   God loves each and every human being.  His angels watch over us and guide us to eternal life. The importance of a person is not determined by wealth or power but by love. Love involves sacrificing one's desires for the sake of others, but it's through this giving that man finds true happiness.  This is the message of "It’s a Wonderful Life."  It's a movie for people of all ages.  I encourage you to watch it with your family, especially during the Christmas season.

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