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Why I Love 'It's a Wonderful Life'

Celebrating the magic of this beloved holiday film

By Shayla Thiel Stern

The beloved film classic, It's a Wonderful Life, is a holiday mainstay for many of us. In case you've never seen it, the 1946 Frank Capra movie is about the life of George Bailey, who — after a series of unfortunate events — says he wishes he'd never been born. An angel named Clarence is sent to earth to make his wish come true and shows Bailey what life would've been like for his loved ones and community without him.

I make a point to watch It's a Wonderful Life every year — a tradition that started after I saw the film with friends in the Music Box Theatre in Chicago as part of an annual holiday sing-along and movie night. Although I was certain I’d seen Jimmy Stewart as Bailey yelling “Merry Christmas” to Bedford Falls about a hundred times before that screening (and did a pretty good imitation of this myself), I realized that I’d really just tuned in to bits and pieces as the movie aired nonstop on TV in my earlier life.

If you don’t watch It's a Wonderful Life all the way through, though (it'll be on NBC on Christmas eve), you miss some great scenes — and some great life lessons to boot. Here is a quick rundown of several of my favorite moments from this classic:

1. George Bailey meets Mary Hatch.

It’s a Wonderful Life has a love story at its heart. Mary (played by the impeccable Donna Reed) makes George's life more interesting. You don't get this if you just tune into the end where she's holding a child and watching the love roll in for George, but pay attention to the rest of the movie and you learn Mary is smart, sultry, resourceful, determined and one heck of a dancer.

You also see Mary later in the alternative universe as "an old maid," which always struck me as odd since I had the fortune of being raised in a post-Betty Friedan world in which I thought Mary as Librarian — scandalized by George yelling to her on the street — was actually pretty cool and with-it in her fedora and glasses. We get a little history lesson in this scene: Being an "old maid" is worse than anything in the eyes of George.

2. George sacrifices to save his community.

Arguably, this happens repeatedly throughout the film, and it is a huge theme. George skips college to stay home and take care of the Building and Loan, which the community needs to make loans to people who would not get them (or would be subject to predatory lending practices the likes of which even The Big Short didn’t foresee). Neighborhoods with affordable housing and small businesses are made possible by the Bailey Building and Loan. And to prevent a run on the bank in an early scene, George and Mary loan nervous bank customers money that they’d saved for a honeymoon-around-the-world. I love the faith that the Baileys consistently show in Bedford Falls and its residents.


3. George contemplates suicide.

Yes, this movie is dark at times. After a series of events that drive George to the brink, he goes to the town bridge and contemplates suicide. Instead, George sees someone else struggling and jumps in the water to save him. Turns out it’s Clarence, the wingless angel, who with the help of the archangel Michael in heaven, sets the “world without George Bailey” into motion. It turns out to be a dark, corrupt community run by the evil Mr. Potter (and renamed Potterville) that has become what it is because George was not there to save it in a million small ways over the years. In this alternative world, otherwise perfectly-nice people who are important to the well-being of the community are dead, jailed, bitter, nasty or working in prostitution. Life lesson? You have no idea how much the world needs you, even if in tiny ways that seem insignificant to you.

4. George realizes it really is a wonderful life.

He looks around at his town with fresh, grateful eyes, realizing his importance to the people surrounding him and a commitment to his family (whom he’d left behind, crying and praying for him). Jimmy Stewart's unbridled joy in this scene is the one we've all seen, of course. All that horribleness was just a terrible dream! Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!


And we circle back to the love story. It’s Mary, in the end, who calls the town into action on George’s behalf, to help him save the bank. But George also realizes his friends and family have his back in the end. If that isn't a message of holiday spirit — even 70 years after the movie debuted — I don't know what is.

Shayla Thiel Sternis the former Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS. Read More
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