(Originally posted 24th December 2016)
It's a Wonderful Life is a perennial christmas favourite and is the ultimate feel-good film. And like most feel-good films it is, of course, a horrific tragedy. So allow me to pop your little bubble of christmas innocence and break down some of the most troubling implications in this piece of small town Americana propaganda.
4. The Baileys are going to ruin Bedford Falls
There's a thin line between being selfless and being a doormat. Peter Bailey maintains the Building and Loan for the benefit of everyone but himself, it seems, and George dedicates his life to following in his footsteps. The Baileys can't wait to throw money at every Tom, Dick and Martini who want a house, regardless of their financial circumstances. And hey, if someone's having a little trouble in this harsh economy, then we can give them some slack, right? I don't know how this company has managed to go for as long as it has but this is not a sound financial prospect.
And don't think it will just be the Bailey family that will come a cropper when everything inevitably caves in. As we see in the scene with the run on the bank, the whole town is panicking to try and get their cash out, because they know that if that bank goes bust, they'll never see their money again. Not to mention that the bank owns the houses they live in. So they'll all get foreclosed as well – sold off to the nearest ruthless capitalist (Potter) who will then jack up the rent.
This scenario is frighteningly close. We see a couple of times how close the business is to failure.
Bumbling idiot Uncle Billy has to miss George's wedding because they can't afford to close up shop for even a single day. And when bumbling idiot Uncle Billy manages to screw everyone by losing $8000 on his way to a real bank, that is only one cash deposit. I don't know how much $8000 in 1940s dollars is worth (no one does, it's just one of those things that has been lost to time like how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids), but it would be fair to say that it can't be all that much, given that bumbling idiot Uncle Billy has been trusted with it and he's just walking about with it in his jacket pocket like it ain't no thing. These guys are one bad day away from total disaster at all times.
That joyful uplifting ending where everyone comes together to bail out George Bailey? That's not charity or gratefulness on their part – they just know not to kill the golden goose. If George goes down, they're all screwed, and as long as that sucker's still around, there's always room for negotiation on this month's mortgage payment.
3. God's an Arsehole
Perhaps this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise given that the whole Christian faith is built on stories that clearly demonstrate that god is a petulant and reactionary prick, but let's look at the more specific examples that the film gives us, over and above the classic “why does god let bad things happen to good people” rhetoric.
Firstly, getting god to give a shit about you is a numbers game. Clarence is sent to help George, not because he is a good man who has lived a worthy life, but because so many people are praying to get help for him. Simple maths; the more that people pray for you, the more likely you'll get noticed and actually divinely assisted. And we've already established that people are praying for him for their own ends; “Dear god, please help my friend George Bailey (because I just bought little Timmy a new bike for christmas and I don't think I'm going to be able to pay the mortgage this month).” So George Bailey gets help this christmas, but old Tippy Tom the (hypothetical) town drunk can fend for himself as he tries to shelter from the snow because no one gives a toss about him.
Of course, maybe god doesn't care that much about George either, given that he sends Clarence the dopey half angel to help out. Could've just taken care of that situation yourself, god; you are omnipotent, you know. Well, of course you know, you're omniscient as well.
But the evidence points to god being more of a ruthless dictator rather than benevolent bringer of peace and love. Remember how Clarence explains that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings? So angels are just given wings willy-nilly based on what must be a huge number of bells ringing every day, meaning the wings themselves bear no aura of importance whatsoever. The fact that dopey Clarence still hasn't got his after so many years is testament to his alarming lack of angeling ability. The second possibility, and the one that the film seems to suggest, is that the ringing of bells on Earth is dictated by the wing-giving needs in heaven. Given the widespread and multiple use of bells, that can only mean that all human action and by extension all of nature is entirely dictated by god and his whims. We have no free will and our every move is planned and played out without our knowledge.
And given that god is a dictator, try this one on for size: Clarence says that there is no money in heaven, so that means heaven is a communist state. So god is a communist dictator. God is basically Kim Jong-un.
2. George is a Heartless Property Developer
When George is in the “I wish I was never born” alternative universe, we see him running around in a state of mild panic. At one point he finds himself at the site of what should be Bailey Park, the housing estate he built, and very modestly named after himself. What he finds is the town cemetery, and specifically, the grave of his younger brother, who drowned because George wasn't there to save him.
This means, of course, that this graveyard pre-dates any potential building work that George Bailey had arranged during his lifetime. Back in the regular timeline universe, this area would still have been the town cemetery for many decades. So, George Bailey, beloved pillar of the community, bought up the town graveyard as cheap land and then cleared it to build affordable housing. A move almost Potteresque in it's heartlessness.
Apparently people took this pretty well, given the high esteem in which George is held. Clearly people weren't troubled when they received the letter telling them that Granny was being disinterred for relocation. Or maybe he didn't even bother getting rid of the bodies; just pull up the gravestones and hammer the foundation piles straight through the corpses.
“Hi George, yeah we love the new place, thanks for sorting that mortgage out for us. It's very well appointed; that marble fireplace is fantastic. Quick question though; why does the hearth have “Born 1822 – Died 1903” written on it?”
1. Mary is a Stepford Wife
Another thing we learn during George's brief trip into the alternative timeline is that Mary has become an “old maid” and that she's wasted her life by becoming a barren librarian. Now, let's just get over the fact that this is a woman who is supposed to be about 34 and that we're supposed to be absolutely appalled that she hasn't had children and that she's a failure as a woman because she's got an intellectual job. That's obvious to anyone. What concerns me is that librarian Mary is wearing glasses.
Why should this be a big deal? She's a librarian and all librarians wear glasses. That is a medical fact. The problem with this is that back in the regular timeline, Mary is never once seen wearing glasses, no matter how much fine detailed cross stitch she's called on to do. There is no reason why George having never been born would affect Mary's eyesight, so the only conclusion is that she does indeed have bad vision but in the normal universe has chosen not to do anything to correct it.
Of course, this is because she has an image to maintain. She is Mrs. Mary Bailey, perfect wife of the perfect George Bailey in the perfect Bedford Falls. Refusing to wear glasses because of the obvious humiliation of being an imperfect person is just the tip of the iceberg. Her hair is always in the latest sensible mom fashion, not the untidy ponytail of old-maid-dried-up-womb librarian Mary Bailey. And she spends all her time looking after her obnoxious children, forcing them to hammer tonelessly at the piano for hours on end or sending them to bed early because they didn't do their coat up properly and ruined her perfect family. No time for reading books like old fallopian failure librarian Mary Bailey.
And it is all just an image. Mary Bailey is a bad mother. When George finally goes off the rails and decides to go drink driving to let off some steam, she is naturally concerned. But is she concerned about him on a personal level or because he might do something to taint the perfect Bailey family picture? I could only speculate. What I know for sure though is that she went out looking for him. We know this because when George returns, the children tell him that mummy has gone out. So who was looking after them? No one. When Mary decided she had to go out into the cold winter night to squint around looking for her suicidal husband, she left her children, who are all under the age of ten, home alone. Home alone at christmas? How could anyone see a way of turning that into a heart warming film?
Not to mention the fact that the banking authorities who are after George apparently turned up to the house after she'd left and just let themselves in to sit and wait. Just a bunch of guys hanging out in a stranger's house with some infants waiting to arrest their father on christmas eve. Mary didn't even lock the door.
So when you watch It's a Wonderful Life on Boxing Day (check local listings), and you're starting to feel like life might actually be okay, do please take some of these points into account and be reassured that it is not a Wonderful Life. It's a mostly shitty, rewardless, monotonous life and we're all doomed to live it. Merry Christmas.
You can hear more of our thoughts on It's a Wonderful Life and even our ideas for sequels right here: