It’s A Wonderful Life: A Truly Happy Family Film?
For decades now, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life has been considered the quintessence of the Christmas family film. A film which perfectly embodies and diffuses American values, the kind of film that praises the family spirit and is suitable for young audiences. Yet Capra’s work is far from being all nice and happy and the amount of pain and desperation the spectator has to go through before the ending’s relief is immense. Can It’s A Wonderful Life still be considered an innocent light-toned family classic and is its ending a truly happy resolution? Let’s focus on the character of George within Bedford Fall’s domestic matrix and ask ourselves this question: what if family was depicted more as an entrapment rather than a space of liberty and togetherness?
The film focuses on George Bailey (James Stewart), a young man who dreams of leaving the little town of Bedford Falls to see the world’s wonders and accomplish great things. After his father’s death, George inherits the family’s loan company, a business he never had an interest in working for, and a life he never wanted to live. He is constantly opposed to Mr. Potter, a rich skinflint who wants to own the town. Overwhelmed by family obligations and a sense of responsibility toward his community, he bitterly gives up his dreams and sees opportunities pass him by. On Christmas Eve, when his uncle loses the business’s $8,000, George contemplates ending his life until he is met by his guardian angel, Clarence, who shows him what life in Bedford, recalled Pottersville, would be without him.
By tracing the life of George in relation to his family and his town, Capra reflects upon the social place of an individual within his community and his family. Family is presented as an entrapment for George who is unable to define himself outside his role as Peter Bailey’s (Samuel S. Hinds) son, Mary’s (Donna Reed) husband and as the patriarch (the father of his children but also of his community). George’s difficult relationship with his father, his wife and his children shows his reluctance to belong to one place and be attached to others. Yet the film ends on George’s realisation that he needs his family in order to live, presenting the family unit as a space of happiness and security but also as a savior and a need.
I. The Tense Relationship with Patriarchy
One way in which George feels trapped within the family sphere is through his relationship to his father. The father figure is socially perceived at the heart of the family with unquestionable authority and morality, and carries out American idealistic values of domesticity and financial success. The father provides solidity and income to support his family. According to Leland Poague, the male subject is perceived as ‘the ultimate source of paternal authority and reward’ thus an example to follow for the son. When George as a child realises that Mr. Gower has mistakenly filled a prescription with poison, not knowing what to do, he finds the answer in a pipe advertisement carrying the reassuring inscription ‘Ask Dad, he knows’. This shows how society promoted the idea of an all-knowing patriarchal authority, increasing people’s expectations towards the father.
One anticipates that Peter Bailey will resolve his son’s crisis yet when George arrives in the office, he witnesses the lowering of his father’s authority by Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Unable to cope with the idea that his father is a ‘failure’, he shouts at Potter and is being carried out by his own father who dismisses his ask for help, leaving George further removed from patriarchal security. This experience forges George’s future reluctance to work for Bailey Building and Loan Association as he associates the office with Potter’s supremacy and his father’s weaker position, thus it creates a gap between them.
George and Peter have very different conceptions of life: Peter’s is anchored in selflessness as he sees a moral and social utility in his job whereas George sees in it entrapment and mediocrity: “being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office […] I’d go crazy, I want to do something big and something important”. His father explains to him that these are not necessarily measured in material units but that what he does is ‘satisfying a fundamental urge […] deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace”. Peter stands as the embodiment of moral American values based on domesticity, an example George is meant to follow. Compared to his father, his dreams are regarded as selfish which accentuates the gap between the father and the son.
George is torn between living up to the ‘self-sacrificing ideal of conduct’ represented by Peter and living the life of his imagination, fantasies his father does not acknowledge. At dinner, Peter questions George’s future plans just as he is about to leave: is he genuinely ignorant of his son’s ambitions which would show how distant they are from each other, or is he trying to dissuade George from his hopes? Either way, he negates his son’s wishes again which accentuates George’s fear of paternal deafness, of not being heard or understood, and hence increases his desire to exist outside the community and live grand adventures.
Peter’s death snares George into embracing the small-town lifestyle and running the family business. What ties George to the loan company is just the name on the door -because it is a family run business, he is forced to succeed his father thus he is entrapped by his family name: ‘like the young Hamlet, George is haunted by the spirit of a dead father whose place is literally asked to take’. Since he is the eldest, George has to assume the role of the patriarch which means giving up his dreams. Confined to this new responsibility, he provides for his mother and brother, who goes to college. When Harry comes back, George has to give up on the hope of his brother replacing him at the bank as the latter now has a wife who offers him a job. This new family is an obstacle to George who is sent back to his trap.
When the family is gathered in happiness around Harry and his new wife, George stands outside, alone, smoking a cigarette in the darkness. In this shot, the use of deep focus establishes the contrast between the joyful family celebrating inside the house and George, crushed by the weight of his father’s legacy and the realisation that his dreams are yet again compromised. As George moves away, the window becomes blurry and the family fades away, illustrating George’s alienation, losing touch with his peers. The sound of a train in the distance represents his dream slipping away from him just as he throws the travel leaflets away, reluctantly accepting his fate. This creates an internalised rage within George who is forced to become the new fatherly figure, a rage he unleashes against his family and especially, against Mary and the domestic ideal she represents.
II. The Traps of Married Life
Mary seems to act as the primary mechanism that entraps George in Bedford Falls. With her, George has to be a husband and father, ties that prevent him from acceding to his dreams. Mary’s dreams seem antithetical to George’s, imbued in the American idealisation of the domestic sphere. Sullivan states that ‘the romance Mary perceives is one of stability and rootedness, of domesticity and a lived-in, close-at hand history and is antithetical to the escapist romance that appeals to George’. The image of ‘lassoing the moon’ is representative of the binary opposition between George and Mary’s fantasies. While George sees in the metaphor a playful exploit that matches his desires for adventure, Mary responds to it affectionately, acknowledging his aspirations, mockingly by caricaturing it and possessively, reducing ‘George to an image she creates and holds within her hands’. Thus Mary drives George into domestic life, a stability that scares him, marriage being a new prison of social expectations.
Being tied to a woman is seen as an emasculation: when meeting Mary at the ball, George refuses to be a ‘wet nurse’, envisioning a potential closeness with Mary as something that will effeminate him in a mothering role. Later, Potter presents the family as a burden to George and describes him as ‘trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters’. The idea of nursing suggests that George has to be responsible for others which prevents him from thinking about himself, thus a family with Mary means confinement and loss of independence.
Although George and Mary’s relationship seems conventional, the seduction process is not, tainted with George’s strong reluctance to settle down. The proposal scene is illustrative of George’s conflicting desires. He is waiting outside Mary’s house and struggles to get through the fence, a symbol for his lost dreams and bitter hopes that prevent him from reaching Mary and foreshadows the future struggles they will have to face. While she turns her back on us, waiting for George to enter her life, he moves towards her slowly, reluctantly, which creates an oppressive distance between them.
Later, it is their closeness that becomes oppressive – the tight close-up on them while they listen to Sam on the phone frames the couple squeezed together, George resisting ‘the proximity to Mary and the enforced intimacy’. Thus George is torn between his immediate desire for Mary and his long-life dreams. The proposal is representative of George’s powerlessness in decision-making – he violently tells Mary that he will never marry, then kisses her. The sudden editing to the wedding scene completely contradicts George, always forced to do what he didn’t intend to do in the first place, which highlights again the social pressures that urge George to embrace the traditional family life.
The honeymoon scene is significant in understanding how Mary convinces George to finally settle down. It is the moment he definitely gives up on his dreams, compelled to domesticity. George comes home to a place of comfort and restriction. Mary has done her best to recreate an exotic setting and fix the house in order to please George which is both endearing and entrapping. Mary brings her dream (the house) and his dream (the exotic) together in order to create new fantasies for George but it ultimately dismisses his true desires. The posters on the window shut him from the outside world, within the house he loathes, within home life. The rain infiltrates the house, a symbol for George’s dreams still pouring over the couple – are they ever going to fade away or will they continue to leak through the Baileys’ happiness, cultivating George’s frustration?
When George comes home after his uncle has lost the money, he releases this frustration against his perfectly conventional family, a perfection that makes him feel alien. As Robin Wood argues, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life manages a convincing and moving affirmation of the values of bourgeois family life. Yet what is revealed, when disaster releases George’s suppressed tensions, is the intensity of his resentment of the family and desire to destroy it’. In the image of this too perfect bourgeois family, George’s inner rage unleashes on his children. Whereas they are polite and angelic, George appears impolite and unsatisfied by this dreamy family. While they lovingly prepare Christmas, the time of the year when the family spirit is the strongest, George ferociously dismisses their efforts, going as far as telling Mary: ‘you call this a happy family, why did we have to have all these kids?’ Carney argues that having children for George entails him domestically, socially and financially, but also enacts his destiny in time which settles him forever within the family sphere. We can argue that George refuses his children to bare their father’s fate just like he refuses to define himself only as a father which leads him to dismiss them brutally in the face of his failure.
Crying and holding his child tightly shows him afraid and desperate. His children are forced to witness the father as weak, castrated, just like George witnessed his father’s authority being undermined. Annoyed by his own weakness, George verbally abuses them which shocks the children – they all look at him standing in one corner while he stands alone in another corner, an invisible frontier dressed between them. ‘Why must you torture the children?’ asks Mary which positions George as alien and abusive: he inflicts pain to them through his own suffering, a suffering they do not comprehend because the father cannot be weak. Thus George’s family assigns him to a patriarchal frame that he cannot assume which leads him to resent himself, trapped into a family life he cannot sustain.
III. The Duties towards the Community
A word on Bedford Falls’ community, which is also portrayed as a trap for George. We could argue that it can be perceived as George’s extended family, sharing the Baileys’ most joyful moments and depending on them in hard times. Peter Bailey dedicates his life to this extended family and provides them with the money to get houses of their own which he sees as morally rewarding. After his death, George is meant to take on this role within the community even though he desperately wants to leave town. But every time he is about to leave to pursue his own ambitions, he is pulled back by the citizens in need of him. A number of characters seem to be infantilised, like Clarence or Uncle Billy, and they significantly depend on George to get them out of the troubles their naiveté have lead them into.
The whole community knocks on George’s door for help, all imbued in this childishness and innocence that makes them easy targets for Potter. George seems to be the only one strong enough to prevent them from falling into Potter’s trap which makes him the fatherly figure of the community, a role he did not choose for himself. He is forced to reside in Bedford, trapped into being the provider, guide and savior of the community. Yet why has he always made the choice to come back to that community instead of leaving without turning back? This demonstrates another side of George with a greater sense of collectiveness forged by his father. George cares about the community and about his relatives and defines himself, even unwillingly, through them.
IV. Beyond Entrapment: Family as a Savior
Paradoxically, the film also depicts the family and the community beyond their entrapping side – family is a need, a savior, a support for the individual and a generator of happiness. It’s A Wonderful Life is full of heart-warming family scenes which contribute to its reputation as a Christmas family classic. Every time the family gathers together, it is to celebrate joyous moments, often sharing their happiness with neighbours and friends. In the dinner scene, George and Harry tease their mother affectionately, lifting her up and dropping her on their father’s lap which leads to a tender scene between their parents. The family is shown as united and having fun around a good dinner, a traditional family portrayal. When Harry comes home, they all take a photo together outside, gathered in the warmth of reunion.
George’s wedding again shows the family in positive light, celebrating together in total closeness. George always takes part in these jovial moments and is seen as happy among his family and community. He even acts as a devoted father – when Mary tells him she is expecting a baby, George is over the moon. When Harry receives the medal of honour, George shares his delight with the community like a proud father. When drunk Uncle Billy goes home, George fondly makes sure he is going in the right direction like an amused and caring father. Thus George naturally assumes the fatherly role. The ending conveys his love for his family and his role within it. Back home, he ecstatically kisses his children and wife who hold him without letting go, blessed by the return of the patriarchal figure, strong and laughing. The reporter takes a photo, freezing the moment into eternal happiness. The community – the extended family – comes in to unite around the patriarch in the convivial Christmas spirit.
Family is also shown as a savior, a space of comfort, proximity and a protection against others in hard times. It is Mary who brings resolution to George’s problems by gathering the community into a unified action of help. George is overwhelmed by such an action, standing silently with a fixed smile. Through this action, he understands the value of family and solidarity. His desires are silenced and replaced by new ones, or rather the ones that were there all along, that kept restraining him from leaving town, the ones he could not see. When Violet tells him she has changed her mind and does not want to leave town, George realises that it is perfectly acceptable to have dreams of domesticity. He finally perceives the worth of his position and gets rewarded after all his sacrifices for the community. He understands that giving happiness to others makes him happy just like the community is happy to help him gathering money or arranging his honeymoon. Sullivan says that ‘George never totally subdues his desire to “do big things,” although, as he matures, marries, and starts a family, he manages to confine it to that which he can concretely accomplish within his bourgeois existence in Bedford Falls. […] The mature George Bailey seems contentedly resigned to lead the life of probity and charity that his father led before him’. Through his father’s principles, his wife and the community, George realises he is part of a loving space of comfort and support, and that he has a significant and concrete role to play in Bedford.
V. Family as a Need
The family is also presented as an existential need. One needs to be recognised by others in order to exist, exposing the self to the other’s gaze. George understands that he exists through others’ eyes, his actions being recognised by the community and his family. Jessica Benjamin explains this through the theory of intersubjectivity – human reality and identity are created and discovered between people by acts of mutual acknowledgement. The family is at the heart of this recognition as its existence depends on the acknowledgement of the other as part of the same unity. While others might neglect one’s existence (like Potter annihilates George or Peter), the family is always meant to support its members by recognising their actions and their belonging to a same unit and legacy. In the dark realms of Pottersville, George remains unrecognized by his family and friends which immediately eradicates him from existence. George is no longer the master of his actions and cannot live as a thinking entity if no one recognises his acts. He prays Clarence to get him back to his family where he can ‘live again’, unable to envision life without his family’s recognition.
Mary acts as George’s main ‘recognising agent’- we could argue that far from belittling his desires or anxieties she acknowledges them and is mutually attuned to share them. By recognising his wishes and fears, she grants him his humanity and pushes him to accept his belonging to Bedford Falls, a place that recognises him as an existent entity. Thus George’s responsibility for others allows him to exist. Realising this at the end, he accepts ‘meaning through the ties that bind: as Peter Bailey’s son, and Mary’s husband, as the father of his children’. Capra ends his film on the morale note that all men need to belong to a family and social unity in order to exist: ‘No man is poor who has one friend […] each man’s life touches so many other lives’ says the director. We all live in others as we define ourselves through this interconnection and depend on the other’s acknowledgement of our actions; family is needed to bring our existence into the concrete shores of reality.
In It’s A Wonderful Life, the theme of family and community is handled as an essential part of George’s characterization and is at the heart of the film’s moral and existential reflection on the value of one’s life. Family is portrayed as oppressive yet needed. George is trapped into the domestic sphere of Bedford Falls and has to define himself as a Bailey, only acknowledged through his role as a son, a husband, a father and a provider for the community. Tied by the responsibility of these roles, George’s dreams evolve from escapist fantasies to desires for domesticity as he understands the importance of his role within the family/community. Thus family is also portrayed as a savior, a loving space of comfort and protection that asserts George as an existing entity. Yet we could argue that if one needs family to be saved and recognised as a human being then one is always trapped within it, unable to exist beyond the family circle. Is the human condition, always linked to its belonging to the family dimension, a never-ending entrapment which denies any sense of independence?
– Carney, Ray ‘American Dreaming: It’s A Wonderful Life’, in American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986)
– Poague, Leland, Another Frank Capra (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005),
– Sullivan, Daniel J. “Sentimental Hogwash? On Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life”, Humanitas (2005), p.130. Web. 28th November 2014.
– Wood, Robin, ‘Ideology, Genre, Auteur’, in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Revised edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976
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