25 December 2006

The Richest Man in Town

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 4:32 pm


I owe everything to George Bailey.

– the first line of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) by Frank Kapra

The last time I watched It’s a Wonderful Life it made me want to jump off a bridge.

We’d just about run out of ideas for illegal downloads that might be fun for the whole family. The gap between kid and adult fare has widened considerably in recent years, and most of the older titles have never taken up residence on enough hard drives for the shareware to grab hold of. Apparently It’s a Wonderful Life can muster enough mythic power to make the jump across the technological gap.

When you know a movie really well it starts to transcend linearity. When you know how the story is going to turn out and how it’s going to get from here to there, every scene becomes suffused with eschatological plenitude. This is how myths take shape: through endless repetition the beginning doesn’t just point to an inevitable end: the beginning includes the end.

A snowy village scene is accompanied by a triumphantly orchestrated rendering of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” “You Are Now in Bedford Falls” reads the road sign; then another sign takes its place: “Gower Drugs.” Then, in voice-over, the first line is spoken. We who have spent a lot of time in Bedford Falls recognize this voice right away, and we know just what the words mean.

What was it about for me this last time? George Bailey closes his eyes, places his hand ceremonially on some sort of machine: “I wish I had a million dollars,” he says, then ritually he pulls the lever. “Hot dog!” His favorite sounds? Train whistles, boat horns… signals that announce the beginning of a heroic voyage. Of course he never sees the world, never even attempts the defining deed, never makes his million dollars. Instead he… inherits the family business, sells low-interest mortgages for starter homes that’ll keep everybody else from moving away too, gets married and has three nice kids, remodels the big mansion at the edge of town.

The first line sets the movie’s distinctly economic tone. It’s all about money: money borrowed and lent, money invested and spent, money lost and found. Has George made a good investment of his own life? Clarence, George’s guardian angel, sets up an alternative-past scenario to show just how low Bedford Falls would have fallen if good old George Bailey hadn’t been there to write all those mortgages for the locals. Make no mistake: the kid brother who went to war did return a hero; the old buddy who started a business did make a fortune. But George is richer than them all, because no man is poor who has friends. Because it turns out that everybody in town loves George, and they all bail him out financially when that greedy bastard Mr. Potter, his lone competitor in the local marketplace and the only other really interesting character in the movie, rips off the bank deposit from kindhearted but addled Uncle Billy.

So I’m watching this movie again, knowing how everything fits together in the larger scheme, knowing that every outstanding account will eventually be balanced, that every loan will be repaid at a fair rate of interest, that even the hapless Clarence will finally earn his wings, and I feel the gloom descend. Where’s the story about the guy who has the nice successful business but who, when he hears the Glory Train blow its whistle, sells off the house, packs up the family and hops aboard, only to find that the train has been rerouted to some obscure destination that doesn’t even appear on the schedule? And what if the world wouldn’t have been a worse place – what if it wouldn’t have been any different at all? And what if the old friends don’t need to borrow anything from you because it turns out you’ve got nothing they want, and they won’t bail you out because it turns out they’ve got nothing you need? If somebody made that movie would anybody have the stomach to watch it – anybody besides me, that is?



  1. We watched it, though, or at least part of it. George’s suffering is so strong; his guilt over things he didn’t even do wrong. I had to doze off and not see it all.

    It’s a Christmas movie…another that sets us up for feeling badly when our own life doesn’t “measure up” to the ideals. Maybe the movie you suggest should be made…maybe not. Maybe we all need to think about when things don’t go the way they should and how we will react…maybe not.

    Who knows? I’ll likely watch it again someday. Would “White Christmas,” my old childhood favorite, have been any better? Likely not. Hearing Bing Crosby tell Rosemary Clooney that everybody’s got an “angle”…not very Christmas-y either, I fear.

    Never mind. Maybe I’ll go read a book…

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by blueVicar — 26 December 2006 @ 8:01 am

  2. Oh yes, I forgot!

    Making a blog list for Christmas…yep, making a list and checking it twice!

    I’ll add this post…

    Meilleurs voeux…encore!!


    Comment by blueVicar — 26 December 2006 @ 8:03 am

  3. Watching the movie last night I didn’t feel quite as oppressed as last time. This time I was struck by the very last scene, after the dramatic financial bail-out, after the bell on the tree rings, where George and Mary and one of the kids stand smiling into the camera. Jimmie Stewart’s and Donna Reed’s ecstatic expressions look forced, almost pained, like they know there’s something phoney about this ending. I was reminded of the last scene in The Graduate, where Dustin Hoffman has just kidnapped Katherine Ross from her own wedding and they’re riding the bus out of town — that long last close-up of the two of them as the uncertainty slowly ebbs back into their faces…


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 December 2006 @ 10:30 am

  4. Beauty faked or forced is not real beauty. Beauty, at least where I come from, is messy, ambiguous, wide and deep, with dark places unresolved, yet illumined by hints of grace. That’s really all we get, experientially: hints. So we go on an egghunt each easter, looking for Clues to our redemption — hints of New Life, and a new perspective on this one. And the searching is, in some sense, the act of subtle faith. At least that’s what I believe.


    Comment by Jemila — 2 January 2007 @ 4:32 am

  5. Thanks. Yesterday I read The Road, the latest book by Cormac McCarthy, and a darker, more pessimistic tale would be hard to imagine. But despite the horror and despair it’s beautiful in the way you describe. The tiniest hopes and subtlest hints often get overwhelmed by the hoopla and excess, but when that’s all there is, is the faint glimmer enough to keep us walking down the road? (I’ll probably write a “first lines” post about this book, if not today then soon.)


    Comment by ktismatics — 2 January 2007 @ 9:29 am

  6. […] Of course It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie that’s predicated on exploring an alternative past. “I wish I’d never been born,” George laments; overhearing George’s Christmas wish, his guardian angel Clarence makes it so. And now we’ve circled back around to the premise of my old post post. If you like — if you dare, buahaha! — you can read it here. […]


    Pingback by Christmas Wishes Revisited – Ficticities — 23 December 2018 @ 12:01 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: