There are certain films and television shows that are so much a part of the Christmas season that, whether religious or secular in focus, they bring to life the “spirit” of the season and can leave even the most Grinch-like viewer a little misty.
One of the all-time classics is It’s a Wonderful Life, based on the 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern had trouble selling the story to a publisher and so he sent it as a Christmas present to several hundred people, and the manuscript eventually ended up in the hands of Frank Capra. After several re-writes, including the changing of the names and occupations of the main characters, a Christmas classic was born.
In some ways, the plot resembles that of what Keith Jackson might call “the granddaddy of them all” – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In each story the protagonist is taken on a journey into a world where he is a mere viewer and not a participant. Ironically, Ebenezer Scrooge is taken on this journey so that he will become the type of person that George Bailey already is; while George is made aware of what the world would be like if the Scrooge of Bedford Falls, Henry Potter, were given free reign.
In the original short story the person who intervenes when the main character is on the bridge contemplating suicide is an unnamed stranger, poorly dressed but kind and well-mannered. He seems the embodiment of what Dorothy Day had in mind when she quoted from Hebrews: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” One wonders if Frank Capra had that reference running through his head when he turned that mysterious stranger into Clarence the guardian angel who is on a mission both to help George Bailey and to earn his wings.
Despite the theological impossibility of an angel either having or needing wings, the film is filled with the spirit of a Catholic worldview. Not only is Clarence a guardian angel, a very Catholic belief (what Catholic worthy of the name doesn’t know the Guardian Angel Prayer?), but the focus on the relationship between personal morality and economic justice almost makes one believe that the script writers had read Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno.
Twice in the film the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan is in dire economic straits, and in both instances it is not the wealthy Mr. Potter who bails George out, but the ordinary common people of Bedford Falls, themselves members of the Building and Loan. Potter would have risked nothing by giving George the money, but instead it was those who had everything to lose who stood by George and the Building and Loan that had stood by them.
When George is granted his wish by Clarence and is made a non-person he sees what his absence has done to Bedford Falls and to all those people who depended on him to keep them out of the clutches of the corrupt and usurious Potter. Bedford Falls is no more. In its place is Pottersville with its substandard housing and its many opportunities for immoral activity that dull the brain and wither the heart, a place where the local theater was now a burlesque house featuring “Twenty Gorgeous Girls.”
In the great historical drama Becket, the eponymous main character, prior to his conversion, states that “an occupying force should never crush; it should corrupt” and this is exactly what happens in the Bedford Falls without George Bailey. Henry Potter’s plan was one that the writers did not have to invent for the film; all they had to do was look at their own industry and those who funded it as their guide.
Just as with Ebenezer Scrooge, all turns out well for George Bailey, and for the town and its citizens. When George runs home after returning to personhood he passes through the town square with its reassuring sign stating “YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS.” And to make certain that the audience is left with no doubt that all is again well, the Bijou Theater is screening The Bells of St. Mary’s.
The reference to The Bells of St. Mary’s is not only an indication that the debauchery of Pottersville is gone, but might also be a theological statement of redemption similar to that of A Christmas Carol. A year before playing Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life Henry Travers played the evil businessman Horace P. Bogardus in The Bells of St. Mary’s. This symbolic journey from demon to angel in one short year should give hope to us all that we can – if we work to destroy the Pottersville in our hearts – become “as good as gold and better.”