It was a flop at the box office. Cinematic critics gave it mixed reviews. Still, it was nominated for five Academy Awards. It achieved its popularity on television thirty years after its debut in theaters. A remarkable comeback and one for the books in motion picture history. I suppose the movie initially failed because its hero was not a veteran, only a simple dad who was 4-F because of a bum ear, and men coming back from World War II could not identify with someone who did not share in their hard won sacrifice and horrific experience.
But the protagonist in this movie was a soldier. A lone combatant who fought the battle of Bedford Falls against all enemies, especially domestic, so that his friends and family, when they did come home, from both the European and Pacific Theaters of war, could live in freedom.
Let’s talk about a Christmas movie in June – just in time for Father’s Day.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was director Frank Capra’s masterpiece, besting, for my money, Meet John Doe (1941) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It ranks #11 on the American Film Institute’s list of “100 Greatest Movies Ever Made.” It was voted #1 on the list of “Most Inspiring Movies of All-Time.”
Here’s why: Because it put a most singular, though peculiar, focus on fatherhood at a time in both American and world history when a father meant everything: to his wife, to his children, to his family and community, and, to an even greater degree, civilization itself. Yet this was a time when a different kind of war was being waged against fatherhood.
And I’m not talking about 1946. I’m talking about why the movie suddenly became popular in my lifetime. I’m talking about today.
George Bailey (as an adult in the film, played by icon and heroic war veteran Jimmy Stewart) is an adolescent working in a drug store as a soda jerk when the movie begins. It is the time of the Great Depression.
George’s boss, Mr. Gower, had just received a telegram notifying him of his son’s death. Gower takes to the bottle to find comfort while fumbling to fill a prescription. He orders George, who was talking to Mary Hatch (later played by Donna Reed) about his plans and dreams for the future, to deliver the drug to its recipient. But, George reads the telegram, absentmindedly left on the counter, and notices Mr. Gower’s devastatingly drunken condition. He immediately suspects that something is wrong with the prescription.
There’s an advertisement hanging from the store window that reads “Ask Dad – He Knows,” with a Norman Rockwell-like illustration that catches George’s eye. George obeys Mr. Gower’s instructions and starts his delivery of the narcotic which he knows contains poisonous cyanide. He makes a bee line to his father’s office at the town’s savings and loan building. But, his father is embroiled in an argument with the story’s arch antagonist, the egotistical and tyrannical Mr. Potter, who wants to take over the Bailey Savings and Loan Company and, like Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, put an end to free will and rule with an iron hand. Young George persistently tries to make his father aware of the urgent and dangerous situation he faces. But the battle between Bailey and Potter is too heated.
Still, the seeds of responsibility had been planted in George’s life by his parents. Instinctively, he knows what to do. He has to go back and confront the drunken Gower. When he guts it up and does this, he gets his bad, bloody ear boxed in. Yet, George Bailey saves two lives that day: the client who called in the prescription and Mr. Gower, who certainly would have been convicted and jailed for his negligence if word ever got out. Although never aware of it, until it is revealed to him by an Angel named Clarence, George saves the day. It wasn’t the first time he would do this, nor was it the last.
A Regular Joe
My own father served in the Navy during WWII. He came home and wrote love letters to his sweetheart, daring to suggest he meet her at mass on Sunday – what presumption. Dad held his breath waiting for a reply. Of course, mom said yes. Hence, my nine brothers and sisters and I saw the light of day.
George Baily and Mary Hatch had a bit more heated prenuptial meeting involving a telephone conversation with George’s old pal and war financier, Sam Wainwright. Some of which had to be edited and left on the cutting room floor because it was too steamy for audiences at that time. To me, it was hot enough. What guy wouldn’t want to share a phone with the “All American Girl,” Donna Reed.
Like George Bailey, my father sacrificed long held dreams in order to provide for his new family. Millions of servicemen who came home from the world’s greatest conflagration did the same. They did this without rancor, without comment, without bitterness because they knew what was expected of them. And this, at that time in our history, was expected of all fathers.
Like St. Joseph, they raised a family living a quiet life of distinction. They saw enough of the world. They knew what they had back at home was worth fighting for and many of them made the additional sacrifice of serving in the Korean War.
Working in shops or on factory floors or between corn rows on family farms, the “Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw called them, never quit providing for their families and sacrificing themselves using an anonymous technique they could never put a name to and would never think of doing so; something a later generation of sociologists would call “delayed gratification.”
Aquinas and Dickens
A familiar theme in many of Frank Capra’s movies was the average guy’s struggle with the world he lived in and the bad guys who unfeelingly sat on their thrones and dictated policy. It is the ancient story of David and Goliath, the weak versus the strong, the powerful manipulating the weak. Capra’s movies are popular because this strikes a familiar chord in all of us. Of course, Capra wasn’t the first to recognize integrity as both a literary and cinematic motif. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Two Precepts of Charity (1273), said that “three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” Simply put, duty and obligation to others always takes precedence, and there is no greater good than to place love for another before love of oneself.
George Bailey, demonized by his own personal devils, was about to get this all wrong when he decided to commit suicide by jumping off a bucolic snow-covered bridge. There was little logic left in his warped mind. In fact, he succumbed to the very nature of evil: pride. He couldn’t live with the scandal that would ensue because of the missing money his uncle had stupidly surrendered into the hands of the decrepit and unscrupulous Mr. Potter. But, then something happened to George Bailey that shifted the cosmos: a simple prayer.
The plainest and most heartfelt prayers of man are always answered. St. John Vianney, the “Curé of Ares,” said that one perfectly prayed Hail Mary offered up to heaven could never be denied, especially if was said by a child.
In Charles Dickens’ immortal classic, A Christmas Carol, the underpaid, overworked, clerk at Scrooge and Marley’s counting house (they were loan sharks), was the buoyant Bob Cratchit. Like George Bailey and my own dad, Bob was a responsible husband and father who had many children. Cratchit was an eternal optimist. The glass in his poor life was always half full because it simply had to be. To think otherwise would be self-defeating because it would then be self-realized. And, what’s the point of that. Misery, it’s said, loves company. Cratchit would have none of it.
It’s a wonder to me sometimes looking back at my childhood years and realizing that I was quite happy. We were far from being well off; we weren’t even “comfortable.” It was pretty much pay check to pay check, and even that was stretched thin. We only once took a family vacation. Although day trips on a Sunday after mass were a staple. Picnics and play time were a must. Love was abundant and joy infectious. As brothers and sisters, we were our own best friends.
Still, personal space was at a premium and fistfights and wrestling matches were as common as in any home. A real Cratchit or Bailey family would have shared in the same experience. My father had his dark side of course, especially when he saw the creeping infiltration of modernity with all of its faults, appearing on the doorstep of our home and threatening us with real danger. This was during the sixties and seventies when families were being torn apart by no-fault divorce, birth control, a thorough and complete breakdown of catechesis that complacently waltzed with professed religious dancing out of convents and rectories and into the dawn of a new day filled with sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Somehow, we survived.
Father Knows Best
It’s a Wonderful Life is, of course, A Christmas Carol turned upside down. Bob Cratchit doesn’t need saving but George Bailey certainly does. Ebenezer Scrooge can only be saved by ghostly visits to become the Father Christmas he was born to be. George needed an angel without wings to see the light. Both Scrooge and Bailey were given the grace to see the truth.
This is why both tales continue to inspire us today. We are so desperately in need of truth in our lives. Instinctively, fathers want to do the right thing. Innately, children need the wholesome discipline that only fathers can provide, so that they can return a father’s love and feel the warmth of his pride in them.
Sure fathers were, in the fifties of the last century, characterized as fault free. This, of course, wasn’t true. Dads everywhere can and do have their breaking point, just as George Bailey did. Today, however, the breaking point isn’t within the man, its endemic in society. So many dads just walk away. The sacredness of fatherhood is belittled in television sit-coms and, especially, in TV advertising. Is this a reflection of our culture today? Yea, it is. Was your father like that? No, I don’t think so. My dad certainly wasn’t.
On this Father’s Day, let’s join our hands and pray that all fathers take their responsibility to heart. That they come to realize that fatherhood is a gift from God, a sacred trust, a treasured institution created from the beginning in the likeness of the Father of us all.
And, for all the guys reading this humble reflection, when it becomes your time to push or shove; when dark clouds and fierce winds threaten your neck of Bedford Falls, remember, Clarence was right; it really is a wonderful life.
Oh, and Merry Christmas – I mean, Happy Father’s Day!