Of all the movies considered holiday classics, It’s a Wonderful Life is the odd man out. Christmas movies generally center around, well, Christmas. Plots focus on the holiday, and conflicts are resolved with everyone ending up with what they want. In A Christmas Story, Ralphie gets the air-rifle and has the best Christmas of his life. He doesn’t know that, but we do. This is the one that he’ll remember years later. Clark does get the bonus check in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Kevin’s parents come home. These are happy movies. Even the granddaddy of them all, Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, ends the same in each and every version, with a reformed Scrooge providing a feast for the fecund Cratchit family, and the audience assured that Tiny Tim will end up healthy.
Which is why It’s a Wonderful Life is so different. The movie doesn’t have a traditional happy ending. At its start we meet George Bailey and get an introduction to his life. He is smarter and more ambitious than anyone around him, and wants out of the stuffy town of Bedford Falls. His plans are waylaid by a combination of bad luck and bad relatives. His father dies unexpectedly as George is readying to leave town. The family business is a partnership, but the partner is the semi-moronic, most likely closet-alcoholic Uncle Billy, a man who provides the answer to the question “Why is nepotism bad”. Instead of waving goodbye, George ends up promising his mother to watch over the family business until his younger brother retunes from college. Harry Bailey, George’s younger brother, turns out to be as dependable as Uncle Billy. Instead of holding up his end of the bargain, he returns from college with a rich new wife and makes a clean escape from the stifling burg of Bedford Falls.
George has a decision. He can stay in the town he finds boring with job he despises, or he can leave. He feels the call of duty and stays, ending up marrying the girl next door who never had any ambition in life other than being Mrs. George Bailey.
That’s where we come in to the movie. George is now middle-aged, still running the Building and Loan, still employing the worthless Uncle Billy, still dreaming of excitement and travel. He’s content with his life, but not really happy. The crisis that George goes through is manufactured; it happens only because Uncle Billy is a moronic halfwit who probably would be challenged by which end of the brush to use in scrubbing a toilet. It’s the weakest part of the movie, and acts only to move to the story to the denouement, when George discovers that his life of lowered expectations and unmet dreams is actually good, that in fact he has a wonderful life.
The scenes of Bedford Falls without George act to assuage his sense of frustration in having sacrificed all his dreams. George, and the audience, sees the consequences that would have arisen had he not been there to lose his dreams. The Building and Loan would have failed, leaving his mother a poor widow. Uncle Billy and Druggist Gower both spent time in institutions. Bedford Falls is a party town, and (oh Lordy no!) there appear to be jazz music and Negroes. Worst of all, of course, is the fate of Mary, who has become… gasp… the town librarian (apparently the most horrible thing that could befall a woman) and, judging from her clothes, perhaps a Lesbian as well.
And so we leave George at the end of the movie, with family, townspeople, and the bank examiner all in his living room. He’s still a middle-aged guy who will never travel or leave Bedford Falls, and he still has to work with people who are far less competent and intelligent than he is. He’s no better off than he was before; but now he’s learned that he is personally responsible for making everyone else’s life better. Talk about guilt. He’s everyone who ever turned 40 and wondered what the hell happened.