I have a confession to make, one that’s bound to cause old ladies to clutch their pearls in shock and make babies cry:
I absolutely cannot stand It’s a Wonderful Life. I never liked it when I first saw it 30 years ago and I still can’t stand it to this day. And no, it’s not just because it eventually supplanted the far superior The Best Years of Our Lives as a movie classic.
You see, for the first two thirds of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life is a riveting, gripping psychological drama about a man who is driven to suicide after a lifetime of crushing disappointments. Then it hits the famous Third Act. To most people, the moment when George meets Clarence is considered to be one of the most beautiful, heartwarming sequences ever in movie history. But to me, it was never anything more than a cheap storytelling cop out. Worse yet, the Third Act pushes a number of very sinister agendas that I’ve never been able to get past no matter how “feel good” the movie is meant to be.
Of course, I can’t just say all this. I have to explain why. So below, I’ll try as best as I can to dissect the Third Act piece by piece and explain why it’s caused me to dislike this movie so much.
Problem #1-The Never Been Born Sequence is Intellectually Insulting Garbage
One positive thing I can say about the classic “never been born” sequence is that it’s a clever twist on “A Christmas Carol.”
Too bad, though, that true to the insipidness of Frank Capra films, it had to insult the audience’s intelligence by completely overplaying its hand in showing how important George Bailey was to Bedford Falls. But how?
Well, it’s most likely true that George not being born would’ve had some genuinely negative impact in Bedford Falls. But the movie doesn’t present a realistic scenario; it plays out the absolute worst case scenario.
One of the worst case scenarios is that were it not for George, everyone’s personal lives would’ve fallen into abject misery and ruin, no matter how auspicious a start they had. They could have been brainy as hell, athletic, resourceful or the vision of loveliness; it didn’t matter. Were it not for George, they would’ve all become miserable soulless, immoral failures and wretches.
Take, for example, George’s sweetheart, Mary. The movie plainly shows that she was a gorgeous, socially gregarious young woman. She could have had her pick of any eligible young bachelor in college. There was absolutely no reason whatsoever why someone like her–a beautiful, vivacious young woman–would’ve become a spinster librarian just because George was never born. Even if he was her soul mate, she still would’ve found someone to marry. Maybe she wouldn’t have someone as perfect as George but she would’ve found someone.
A more realistic scenario–and one that would’ve respected the audience’s intelligence a whole lot more–was Mary settling down with someone who turned out to be abusive or an alcoholic. Or maybe a man who had started out as the town bully. But Mary not marrying at all just because George isn’t in the picture was just plain ridiculous.
Another worst case scenario It’s a Wonderful Life presents is Bedford Falls turning into a complete and total snake pit just because George wasn’t born. No matter how amazing a person, there is just no way that he and he alone would’ve been the one thing to prevent an entire town from falling into ruin. Sure–maybe abject poverty would’ve hit Bedford Falls, but having it become one gigantic Skid Row where every single resident becomes a despicable low life is just plain stupid and intellectually insulting.
Problem #2-The Behavior of the People of Bedford Falls was a Complete 180
A lot of viewers seem to miss the finer point of why George Bailey wound up having a nervous breakdown. They think, “Oh, well he became suicidal because after a lifelong of abuse from Mr. Potter, the embezzlement frame up was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Contrary to popular belief, this is not why he becomes despondent. George has a breakdown because he spent his entire life being taken advantage of by the people of Bedford Falls, who constantly thwarted or sabotaged his plans to pursue his lifelong dreams of becoming an architect and man of the world.
Look at all the key events of his life. His first major life goal was to not have anything to do with banking. The reason is that he didn’t want to end up like his father, a banker who had literally been worked to death by Mr. Potter. Also, unlike so many people of Bedford Falls, he didn’t want to remain stuck in town in a dead end job with no education or future prospects. He wanted to leave Bedford Falls, get a college degree, become an architect and travel around the world.
His uncle, instead of respecting his wish not to take over his father’s position at the bank, guilt trips him into accepting the job. George begrudgingly accepts, but only because he has worked out a deal with his brother, Harry. The deal is that he will hold down the fort at the bank for four years while Harry goes to school. When Harry comes back, George will leave Bedford Falls to go to college.
Instead of honoring his deal, Harry secretly gets married and is unable to return to Bedford Falls . Now George is stuck indefinitely in the job that he hates so much, stuck in a town he’s been desperate to leave since he’s been a young man. To make matters worse, Harry goes on to experience the very life that George had been dreaming of. He gets a cushy job, leaves Bedford Falls, sees the world as a soldier in WW2 and comes back a decorated and celebrated war and town hero.
Not all is lost, it seems. After all, George still has a chance to travel the world. But guess what? On the day of his wedding, the townspeople go into a full blown panic, and he has no choice but to cancel his Honeymoon plans to deal with the banking crisis.
Afterwards, there are more events in which George has responsibilities foisted upon him without his permission, either out of social obligation or because everyone just takes it for granted that he is the resident Stand Up Guy who will just do anything they want without question. In one scene in which he’s made to oversee a project without being asked, he is so enraged that he kicks the tires of his car.
Then his uncle–the very guy who started George’s downward trajectory by guilt tripping him into taking his father’s job decades before–thoughtlessly loses money in a simple errand. And now he is facing embezzlement charges.
With the exception of Bert and Ernie (who out of compassion made a sincere attempt to make up for George and Mary’s lost Honeymoon), at no time did anyone of Bedford Falls ever so much as display any level of consideration or compassion towards George. Everyone–even his brother–selfishly used him again and again for their own gain without showing him any gratitude or appreciation.
So why in God’s green earth in the third act would the townspeople of Bedford Falls have suddenly rallied to his side when the bank’s money went missing? Why? Out of gratitude, a feeling of obligation, maybe even guilt? It’s conceivable that they could have helped him out of for these reasons. But it’s completely inconsistent with what the writers established throughout the first two thirds of the movie. In fact, going by the events of the film, it’s more likely that everyone pitched out of consideration for Mary, not because they cared about George.
Why harp on this issue? Why not just accept that the people of Bedford Falls might have had a change of heart? Because in the last scene, the audience is supposed to feel all teary eyed that it turned out that George, who looked as though he had spent his entire life being unappreciated by Bedford Falls, had been appreciated all along. But because the movie firmly established up until that moment that the people of Bedford Falls were the cold-hearted, selfish people who had been responsible for his personal crisis in the first place, this sudden display of love and appreciation rings completely hollow.
Issue #3-The Movie Ends Prematurely–On Purpose
It’s a Wonderful Life pulled one of the shadiest, underhanded screenwriting stunts in the history of cinema. It was so shady that it’s almost admirable in its underhandedness.
Let’s recap how the film ends to explain what this stunt was. It’s a Wonderful Life concludes with George getting all this money that the people of Bedford Falls raised. This means that he now has enough money to make up for the bank deposit that his uncle lost.
Now, that’s how the movie concludes. But this is not how George’s situation with Mr. Potter would’ve played out after the movie ended, not by a long shot. What would’ve happened is that a day or two after the movie’s closing scene, George would’ve walked into Mr. Potter’s office to hand in the money. Mr. Potter then would’ve taken one look at him, laughed in his face and said, “I don’t care. You’re still up on embezzlement charges.”
Why? Well, think about it. If you were working at an electronics store and several thousand dollars worth of iPhones disappeared under your watch, would it really make a difference if your friends and family decided to purchase enough iPods to cover the loss? The fact is that a part of your store’s inventory went missing and from management’s perspective, you stole it and therefore still have it in your possession. There is absolutely no reason why you would be off the hook for theft just because people chipped in and donated iPhones to bail you out. In the case of It’s a Wonderful Life, having the people of Bedford Falls raise all this money wouldn’t have made a difference in George’s situation.
I’m sure that some people will argue, “No, you don’t understand. It’s not that the movie says that George is legally off the hook. It’s that the people of Bedford Falls thwarted Potter’s plan to frame him for embezzlement. You see, what happens the next day is that George passes off the money he raised as the money he lost. Mr. Potter has no choice but to accept George’s lie, since there was no way a man like George could’ve been able to scrape that much money overnight, except by miracle.”
The thing is, though, is that the movie shows that it was pretty much an open secret that a miracle had occurred (Mary calling up everyone in town to donate money to rescue George). Since news would’ve gotten to Mr. Potter about what they had done, there was no way that George could’ve fooled him into accepting the money.
The writers of It’s a Wonderful Life knew very well that this is what the natural outcome of George’s dilemma with the missing money would have been. They knew that he would’ve still been on the hook for the money and still been up on embezzlement charges. But they needed the movie to end with a cheap happy ending, so they cleverly had the movie end in the days before George’s inevitable battle in court. This, in turn, left moviegoers with the misleading impression that George’s legal troubles were over when the reality is that they had only just begun.
Problem #3-The Embezzlement Plot Point is a Switcheroo
Let’s say for the sake of argument that it was completely plausible that the people of Bedford Falls really came through for George and that Mr. Potter gave up his scheme to frame him for embezzlement. Okay, great. With everything resolved, George lives happily ever after, right?
You see, when everyone “rescues” George from the charges of embezzlement, it’s all nice and wonderful that he was able to get out of that particular jam. But that jam–as terrible as it was–was not the underlying reason behind George’s decision to kill himself. He was despondent because he had failed to live up to his dreams, was working in a profession he hated and was being taken advantage of by everyone.
So just because he was rescued from that particular dilemma involving the money did not mean that his life was finally back on track. He was no less free of his demons and unbearable life situation before he met Clarence than after. In fact, going by the film, there’s no question that in a few weeks or months, Mr. Potter would’ve concocted some other scheme to screw George over and that the people of Bedford Falls would’ve just kept overburdening him with more social obligations than he could handle. Then he would’ve been right back on that bridge contemplating suicide again, taken up alcoholism or eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.
If this is the case, why do so many people, when It’s a Wonderful Life concludes, feel as if George’s crisis is finally over and his life has completely turned around? Easy. Because the writers did something very sneaky. They pulled a switcheroo.
If you noticed, It’s a Wonderful Life firmly established for the first two acts that it was a lifetime of pent up bitterness, anger and resentment over the many disappointments in his life that culminates in a life crisis. Not just one particular stressful incident.
Rather than conclude this major story line involving George’s life crisis, the writers conjured up a completely different type of crisis, the one involving Mr. Potter and the missing money. Initially, the movie plays this crisis off as being the one blow too many in George’s life that pushes him over the edge. But then the movie subtly shifts gears and makes it seem as if that whole incident was the only driving force behind George’s crisis. When the situation involving Mr. Potter is resolved, the audience is left feeling as if George’s life crisis has been completely resolved.
The switcheroo served another purpose. In the last scene of the movie, it’s emphasized that George wound up getting more money than he needed to help him out of his jam with Mr. Potter.
It’s all well and good that he got all of this money. There’s just one major problem. The money he was given didn’t even come close to making up for all the many life’s goals he was forced to give up because of everyone’s selfishness.
Remember, George never got to see the world, never got to go to school and was trapped in a job he hated. He didn’t even get to go on his honeymoon. He did that so that the people who donated the money–especially Harry–got to achieve their life’s goals and live happy, fulfilled lives. So how were these few dollars that George received supposed to make up for a lifetime of sacrifice and misery?
But with the switcheroo, you’re not supposed to remember all that. You’re supposed to get so wrapped up in the drama involving Mr. Potter that when George later gets all this money, you forget the larger context of why he was despondent in the first place (the lifetime of sacrifices that he was forced to make) and think that he was given some kind of bountiful reward that more than made up for his personal suffering.
Why All of this Has Been an Issue for Me
Naturally, people are going to wonder why all of these things I raised should be held against the movie. After all, it’s supposed to be a feel good movie to lift the spirits of anyone who might be suicidal like George, right? Nitpicking it over these minor points seems like it’s missing the point of the film, sort of like complaining that it was wrong to get a suicide jumper off the ledge by lying to him that he had just won the lottery.
Well, here’s the thing. It’s a Wonderful Life may be a feel good movie but it’s not a feel good movie for anyone who would need this type of film the most. In fact, it’s probably the absolute worst movie that anyone who is in George’s position could watch.
Why? There are a number of disturbing subliminal messages in the movie. Take the “Never Been Born” sequence, for example. What’s it saying? On the surface it seems to be saying that George has underestimated the enormously large positive influence he has had on the town of Bedford Falls. Therefore, he’s anything but a failure just because he didn’t get to achieve his ambitious dreams of being a man of the world and an educated, well known architect.
But that’s not what it’s really saying. What it’s saying is this: “Sure, George is a broken man who never got to see the world, keeps getting used by the people around him and is now facing public disgrace and jail time. But you know what would have been an even worse life for George? If the people of Bedford Falls had all had terrible lives.”
In other words, the movie says that George should feel he has a wonderful life because he made an entire town happy, even though that town’s happiness came completely at his expense, even if it meant sacrificing his life’s goals so everyone else could achieve theirs.
This is one of the biggest ironies of It’s a Wonderful Life. On the surface, it looks as though it’s offering a life affirming message about not killing yourself because of how much of a positive impact you may have had on the world. But actually, the movie is using that message in service of something that is the antithesis of life affirming.
You see, when a person has been driven to the point of despair because they’ve allowed themselves to be taken advantage of again and again, what’s life affirming is to make them realize what’s going on so that they can make the decision to start living for themselves. In the case of George, what It’s a Wonderful Life should’ve done was have Clarence say this, “Look, George. Don’t kill yourself. Fight the embezzlement charges. Then, when you win, take your wife and kids and get the hell out of Bedford Falls and start living for yourself. You have helped this town more than enough.”
It’s a Wonderful Life tells George the opposite. It tells him to keep being mired in the circumstances that led him to want to commit suicide in the first place because sacrificing himself to the extent that he has is for a “greater good”–in his case, keeping the town of Bedford Falls from falling into ruin. So, in a nutshell, It’s a Wonderful Life paints self-sacrifice as a moral virtue.
To make matters worse, It’s a Wonderful Life perpetuates the myth that even though a person may be suffering emotionally and mentally to the point of being suicidal because they’re being taken advantage of, no worries. Some day he’ll be richly rewarded for his self sacrifice like George was.
This sentiment is not something that It’s a Wonderful Life made up. It’s a deeply entrenched myth that is still prevalent to this day. As soon as people learn that someone has made some kind of personal sacrifice for someone, they will imply that there’s loads of good karma coming that person’s way or that he will be blessed one day by a Higher Power.
There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment, per se. In fact, in the right circumstances, it can be kind of sweet. It only becomes a problem if the person who it’s being said to has committed self sacrifice to the point where he or she has become despondent. And unfortunately, this is what It’s a Wonderful Life preaches. It gives people in George Bailey’s position false hope that if they keep self-sacrificing themselves, some kind of reward is going to make up for all the pain, bitterness and personal suffering they’re currently experiencing.
Some Final Words
I know that some die hard fans of the film are still going to fight me hard on my dislike of It’s a Wonderful Life because it’s such a feel good movie for so many people. But my feeling is that whatever good vibes it sends everyone’s way is completely canceled by its sinister anti-life affirming agenda that encourages self-sacrifice.
Even if it didn’t have an agenda, I would hate the movie for its third act just for how cheap it is. Had the writers committed to the original premise of the film, It’s a Wonderful Life would’ve been one of the most insightful explorations about the downsides of altruism, as well as what can cause an otherwise good person who seems to have it all to want to throw his life away. Instead, the writers copped out with a deus ex machine (Clarence) and a treacly Hallmark card ending that did nothing to address why a person like George ended up the way he did.
The 1946 audience who saw this film saw it exactly for what it was; that’s why they rejected it in droves and it flopped at the box office. Too bad today’s audiences didn’t get the memo and continue to be brainwashed into believing that it’s some kind of brilliant holiday classic.