George Bailey, nice guy?

I consider Christmas Story a humble work of genius. It is the only Christmas movie we ritually gather together to watch, but that is only because I have seen my other favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, so many times that there is no need for me to be in the room while it plays. These days I sit somewhere else doing something else, and as I overhear various lines the entire scene replays in my head, in great detail.

I used to just enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life, but somewhere I read an essay that pointed out that Jimmy Stewart’s greatest performances rested critically on an astonishing ability to play both to and against type—in a single movie, sometimes in a single scene, Stewart could both fully inhabit his aw-shucks persona and then add something else, something different, often something creepy. Rear Window had a touch of this, Vertigo so much of it that I can barely listen to Bernard Herrmann’s score anymore, much less watch Stewart’s performance.

The essay suggested that It’s a Wonderful Life ended up being much more than a schmaltz-fest because of the edge that Stewart adds to his portrayal of George Bailey, particularly in the stretch of story where George thinks that Uncle Billy’s mistake is going to destroy the life he has slowly and painfully built for himself in Bedford Falls. Easygoing George is suddenly not so easygoing, in fact he is angry and vindictive and hateful. It’s hard to watch as he lashes out at his wife and children before running off to beg Mr. Potter for help, then stumbles into the night to get drunk and finally kill himself. As Stewart plays him, George has suddenly lost any claim he ever had to being a nice guy.

This year I was thinking about George as a helpful example in understanding exactly how far our obligations go to those we love, especially those we love because of their relationship to us—father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister. It’s hard enough to love George on that Christmas eve when he snapped, but many did and it was a large part of snapping him back. Consider, though, if George had not only snapped but stayed there. How hard would it have been to love him for a week, or a year, or the rest of his natural life? Who would have had the right to distance themselves from him, and after how long, and who would have been obliged to stick with him to the end?

I was thinking about this as the movie began in the next room. As I half-listened to the dialog, I found myself—well, somewhat irritated with George. Sure, he did good things along the way, but it seemed to be solely out of a sense of duty, not for the sake of any joy he found in doing them. He had a strong sense of what was right—saving his brother, keeping the druggist from poisoning a customer, agreeing to take over the building and loan—but time and again he seemed to just accept his lot begrudgingly rather than embracing it cheerfully. George’s real enthusiasm was reserved for his vision of finally breaking free of Bedford Falls and his obligations there, and going off to do what he wanted to do for a change.

Maybe this element of Stewart’s portrayal is obvious to the rest of the world, but I had never noticed it before. It suddenly became clear to me during the scene where George hears that Mary has come home to Bedford Falls and he goes over to visit her, sort of. All the while he is there he is incredibly rude—hilariously so, but still flat-out rude, making self-centered fun of everything that Mary holds dear, to the point where she tells him to get lost and he storms out. It was then I realized that, up to this point, I barely liked George Bailey. I certainly admired his bravery and his sense of responsibility, but I didn’t care for his cynical wise-cracking and his condescending attitude to the friends and family and traditions that surrounded him, treasures he was ready to jettison in an instant.

George comes back to retrieve his hat, and finds Mary on the phone with Sam Wainwright, another suitor (sort of). Finally he gives in to his love for Mary, but not without first saying this to her as he embraces her:

Now you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics! I don’t want any ground floors! And I don’t want to get married ever to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do! And you’re… and you’re…

And of course they kiss, and he proposes, and they get married. But it was that “I want to do what I want to do!” that really got me. George is a man who has at best struck a truce with reality, who is willing to submit to circumstances but is far from being at peace with them. Next he tries to escape with Mary, but the run on the building and loan crushes that last attempt to flee, and he settles in to live a smaller life in Bedford Falls.

The fact that he has never found peace over his lot makes his later encounter with Mr. Potter especially cruel. In trying to entice George into abandoning the building and loan and come work for him, Potter describes his own view of George’s trajectory, which I think is awfully close to how George sees it in his more bitter moments:

Now, if this young man of twenty-eight was a common, ordinary yokel, I’d say he was doing fine. But, George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He’s an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man, who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan, almost as much as I do. A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man…the smartest one of the crowd, mind you, a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he’s trapped. Yes, sir, trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters.

Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?

Notice that George does not disagree with anything Potter says. His response is simply, “Oh, what’s your point, Mr. Potter?” Even when he ends up repudiating Potter’s offer, it isn’t because he thinks Potter has mischaracterized his life, but because he sees accepting his lot as the only way to protect others from Potter’s evil.

Once I understood that George could soldier on, being agreeable and a good husband and sacrificially helpful to others, while at the same time resenting his lot in life, it made the scene where George loses it that much more powerful to me—intolerable, really. Especially the bit when Uncle Billy tells him he has lost the money:

Where’s that money, you silly, stupid old fool?! Where’s that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal, and prison! That’s what it means. One of us is going to jail! Well, it’s not gonna be me.

Now I think we see what the darker side of George has thought all along of Uncle Billy and Bedford Falls and the whole miserable mess. The darker side is in control from this point up to where George finally prays that he might live again, and it is an uncomfortable, even scary thing to watch. It is an overwhelming relief when God grants George not only life but peace, an ability to appreciate his life and family and friends for the good and satisfying thing that it is.

I admire Jimmy Stewart for his ability to mix the light and dark sides of a conflicted character in his portrayal of George Bailey, and his willingness to do so on the screen. But I’m thinking more and more that the ending is a movie ending. There was nothing in George’s actual situation that could have resolved things happily; short of God choosing to intervene dramatically as he did, it is likely that George’s dark side would have triumphed, and he would have been cynical and bitter through and through until the day he died.

Which gets me back to my original question, the one I’m still pondering: Who among George’s friends and family would have had the right to distance themselves from him, and after h
ow long, and who would have been obliged to stick with him to the end?

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7 thoughts on “George Bailey, nice guy?

  1. Those are interesting questions. I’d think that the one who pledged “for better or for worse” would have to stick to him, unless she had Biblical grounds for divorce… but then that opens up the question of what those grounds really are. I’ve always thought that there was only one justifiable reason, but I wonder if that’s really true.

    Last month I was at a wedding where the bride used the “whither thou goest” passage from Ruth as part of her vows. When she said, “thy God will be my God,” it suddenly struck me that she’d just vowed to follow to her husband even into a false religion if he ever left Christ. I wonder if the families realized that when they were writing those vows. I wonder if that’s even an acceptable vow for a Christian to make — for all we know Ruth was still a pagan when she said that to her mother-in-law.

  2. You have to understand it as a battle for power.
    George is the best and the brightest.
    He knows he’s smarter that the entrenched powers (Potter).
    The game is to get them to recognize that…or defeat them.
    George doesn’t really want to leave, in my opinion.
    He wants to dominate. His destiny was to take down Potter…and replace him.
    It’s not about good and evil…it’s about who takes charge and wins.
    Potter and life conspire to make George want to kill himself. In George’s mind, it’s up … or out. If he has to live there, he has to be King…and he has to triumph over the old King.
    The people of the town are willing to go along with him, somewhat, but he has to prove there is something in it for them…as with any revolution.

  3. Interesting.

    Clearly, George is self absorbed and has within him the tendency to be as rotten as Potter. We all have that tendency in us and we all struggle with it. But, in the end, as a result of God’s grace, George sees more clearly and, he is a changed man. The way I see it, that’s always a good story.

    I’m not sure who among his friends and family “would have had the right to distance themselves from him, and after how long, and who would have been obliged to stick with him to the end.” But they all did stick with him. The movie does not reveal the personal struggles of those beyond George. But the fact that his friends and family loved and forgave him, despite his shortcomings is a wonderful testament to these people and a great element of the story too. Surely there is a message for us in that.

    Thanks for the analysis.

  4. I’ve always watched this as a morality play about finding grace and contentment in the real blessings in life. Things like salt to give your life flavor, bread that you may never know hunger etc. Or a wife who will help you find the answers. And in the end, George realizes that the childlike wonder and trust of having Zuzu’s petals in his pocket are the true blessings that God gives us. The answers to our prayers arent in the big things like Sam’s money which is unavailable when George asks for it. It often comes in a form we dont recognize–a bumbling, inept angel with honest faith.

  5. Dark and light wage war inside all of us, to some degree, and so I don’t see George as better or worse than any of us- unless slightly better than most because he does his duty, and our modern tendency is always to excuse us from duty if we don’t ‘feel’ happy about it.

    I always see George’s somewhat bitter, resigned acquiescence to doing his duty no matter what as admirable. I still do. Whether he actually found any joy in doing that duty or not didn’t make his rescue of his younger brother any less momentous, nor did it make the seamen his younger brother saved any less alive.
    Whether or not he found joy in saving his father’s business from Potter and keeping Potter from taking over the town and permitting families the option of living in clean homes with dignity instead of the slums Potter provided is irrelevant to the fact that he did, in fact, provide options that were a blessing to others.

    I think it’s an important lesson to learn- we do the right thing because it is the right thing, whether or not we feel all giggly inside about it, and even if we think we never see any point in it, we don’t know how the ripples of our little acts affect others.

    As for his outburst with his uncle, like many of the other outbursts he has, I don’t think they represent how he really feels all the time, just, as you allude, in his darker moments, and that’s very true of the human condition in general- I think it’s significant that even though in his anger of the moment he says that he’s not going to take the fall for his uncle, when he goes, hat in hand to Potter for a loan, he does just that, saying that he is the one who lost the money and protecting his uncle from Potter’s censure. Potter can’t help blurting out, “YOU?” he is so surprised- showing that, while George does have a dark side (like you and me), he is still not exactly a Potter.

  6. Rick,
    I’m ashamed to admit that I watched this film in its entirety for the first time this year! It surprised me in many ways. I found myself sympathetic to George’s plight as I saw my own thoughts and feelings brought to life. I so understood his frustrations as his dreams were being smothered by circumstances that were out of his control. There are reasons that people leave their hometown…reasons that I never understood until I was in my mid-30’s. (I guess I’m a slow learner). We all need to leave the nest and make a way for ourselves…it is the natural, and I believe, Biblical model.
    As far as who would be obligated to stick with him, I agree with Kelly, that his wife would, indeed, be obligated. I don’t believe any of us have the “right” to be loved, especially if we are insufferable. God loves us, we can be assured, but human relationships are much more complicated because both parties are fallible. George did not deserve God’s graceful intervention, but then none of us do. That’s why I believe the scene when the townspeople come to his aid is so overwhelmingly powerful.

  7. Your review encouraged me to watch the movie for the first time, unfortunately I fell asleep about 20 minutes from the end! Anyway, I am in Chapter 2 of The New Demons by Ellul. Pg. 29 has a paragraph that brought one aspect of George’s character to mind.

    “Whatever happens, happens within earthly time, for man’s existence stretches only from his birth to his death. His life bears no relation to anything higher than himself, since there is neither transcendent reality nor other world. Consequently his life in this world becomes unconditionally important; to live is the supreme value, for at his death the game is over and lost. The adventures that make up the story of his life are the really serious matter, since in the short time he has he must accomplish whatever he is to accomplish. The greatest of crimes, therefore, is the attack on a man’s physical life. A man has to be given time to make a success of his life; if he doesn’t succeed in that he is a total failure and there is no way of making up for the loss.”

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