This year marks the 70th anniversary of Frank Capra’s beloved Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. It debuted December 20, 1946, just a year after World War II ended. (Remember, the film begins and ends with the expected return of war hero Harry Bailey.)
The film offers several Catholic perspectives. How many movies today would begin with eight people praying? But, in a world afflicted by the culture of death, I want to salute the pro-life focus of this film.
In response to those eight prayers heard in heaven, God summons the angels—his messengers—to help. “At exactly ten forty-five p.m. earth time, that man will be thinking seriously of throwing away God’s greatest gift.” To which Clarence the Guardian Angel answers, “Oh dear! Dear! His life!”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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George Bailey is, indeed, contemplating suicide. Like so many despairing people, he thinks the world would be better off without him, that it would “be better if I’d never been born.”
His motives are mixed. Worn out by stress, afraid of scandal, convinced all his efforts didn’t amount to much, and now with a possible embezzlement charge hanging over him, he’d “be better off dead,” as Potter the banker sneers. At least he could cash his life insurance policy to cover the loss for which he himself was not ultimately responsible. And so, he plans to jump off a bridge.
Until somebody else jumps in and, connaturality kicking in, he rouses himself from his self-pity to do what he’s always done with fortitude: help his neighbor.
After the rescue, Clarence chides George gently for the foolishness of wanting to kill himself, while taking credit for “stopping him from going through with it.” “Going through with what? Suicide.” The bridge keeper chimes in: “It’s against the law to commit suicide around here.” Clarence answers: “It’s against the law where I come from, too. Where’s that? Heaven.”
I cite that dialogue in full because, in our northern neighbor as well as in our nation’s capital, suicide is regarded as a “right,” a warped expression of human “dignity.” In a legal positivist world, right and wrong become what legislatures, courts, or councils say. But Clarence knows better: suicide is wrong. It’s wrong because life is “God’s greatest gift,” not my merely useful good.
George has been defending life his whole life long. Literally. At the cost of a beating, he saves the pharmacist Gower from killing a child because of his mistake in mixing a prescription … a mistake born of his own grief over his son. And, of course, the highpoint is—paradoxically—in the cemetery, where George encounters his brother Harry’s tombstone. In “real” life, Harry had fallen into an icy pond as a child and George, at the price of his hearing, saved his brother. Harry later became a war hero for having shot down a Japanese Kamikaze pilot bearing down on a Pacific transport.
George denied that Harry could be dead, because “he’s a war hero. He saved all the men on that transport.” Clarence laconically answers, “All the men on that transport died because Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry.”
America’s abortion license has been predicated on the lie of a no consequence individualism that seeks to reduce killing to mere surgery. Recently, there’s even been a movement urging women to advertise their abortions as a way of undermining social disapproval.
But imagine how many people have died, how much good has been lost, how much America has been impoverished because 55,000,000 of our fellow citizens lie dead, denied even a grave, often reduced to surgical trash or experimental materiel.
Speaking of babies, it’s also interesting to note that the fully developed characters of It’s a Wonderful Life have all also given life. Mr. and Mrs. Bailey Sr. and Mr. and Mrs. Bailey Jr. are sketched out characters, and the only ones in the film whom we know have children. All the others are, in fact, bit players around them.
This film challenges our values, asking us to consider the blessing and nobility in the ordinary. One way it does that is how Mary tells George she is pregnant.
Throughout the film, George constantly strives for the big. He’s going to “build things, bridges and skyscrapers.” And he feels a chip on his shoulder when others go on to do things he thinks are important while he remains stuck “in this crummy town.”
While George is busy comparing himself unfavorably to someone else—“you could have married Sam Wainwright or anybody else in town”—Mary says simply she did not want to marry anybody else because “I want my baby to look like you” and, in a concession to his need to achieve, plays off his line “I’ll lasso you the moon, Mary” with “George Bailey lassos stork.” Mutual love and procreation go together.
Paradoxically, when George sees the dystopia brought about by his absence, the summit of the damage is the fate of Mary: “She’s an old maid. She never got married.” It’s a Wonderful Life has a very Biblical perspective: it is “not good” that someone is alone and, like Elizabeth, “she who was called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible with God.” The film does not regard an empty nest as a blessing, or Mary-the-career-librarian as happy. No one denies the value and importance of work or career, but motherhood (and fatherhood) is more than just another entry on one’s résumé. (I invite you to see if there is a generational disconnect when it comes to that moment in the film.)
George, of course, finally sees he “had a wonderful life.” So many of us fail to do so when trying to make sense of things amid the turbulence, banality, and demands of everyday living. So, too, did George. In the present itself, he never saw just how blessed he and those around him were for his getting out of bed every day. That’s why, when George receives that overview of his life, it’s a great grace: most of us will not have that vision until the day of our judgment. And that is why, on this side of eternity, George’s prayer ends in valuing the life he has been given: “Please, God, let me live again!”
It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that, once upon a time, the Catholic perspective on the value and dignity of life had a far broader command of social support than it does today. It also should give us hope, that the world formed by a culture of life is a human and humane world, in contrast to the barren world of the culture of death. (Remember that George the child asks Potter why he’s such “a hard-skulled character. You have no family. You have no children.”) We can sit down for two hours, watch the film, feel good, and go about our ways. Or we can take a lesson, see what a pro-life world can look like, and get up from the screen intent on doing our little part to build it. For, as Dickens once reminded us: “… any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness.” George Bailey learned that lesson. How about us?