Since our initial love affair with It’s A Wonderful Life, and before I started this blog, I mentioned our affection for the film to a few people.
Folks seem to either love it, haven’t really sat and watched it, or they think it is a sappy, saccharine Christmas movie.
I used to think that, too, before life had blown me and my Mr. Bailey away with some very tough shots.
(Fast forward to 3:45 to see Mary make her move.)
But over the years, the emotion expressed in the film just hits a chord with me. And that feeling of identification with art – that soul vibrating resonance that brings one to tears, to laughter, to feel validated – is just about the best thing about any form of art, be it film, sculpture, painting, poetry, song or performance.
Some critics of IAWL think the characters are too archetypical, too clichéd. I would listen to that argument. After all, George is a big-hearted hero and Mary the faithful wife. Mr. Potter is nasty, mean and worthy opponent.
But there’s more to their characters that reverberates below the surface.
That really broke through to me this last Christmas.
After an evening of welcoming family members who had come from far afield to our home for dinner, people were getting kids in pajamas for the ride home and nursing overly full bellies.
IAWL was on television and we were watching and chatting, the way you do when company comes. Outside, it was raining, the coldest day in weeks. It was dark, so we thought it was later than it really was.
The movie was wrapping up. Clarence had taken his leave of George and George was running through the Bedford Falls streets, toward the twinkling lights of his home and Mary.
After greeting the bank examiner cheerily, George runs up the stairs to kiss his children, all the while yelling for Mary. As Mary comes through the door, having been out looking for him they embrace passionately and George covers her with kisses. She is brimming with excitement, relief and anticipation.
The Bailey home is decorated to the nines, the tree is topped and trimmed and everything screams Christmas. Mary is lovely, snow flakes clinging to her shiny hair, pearls in place, coat with two silver buttons cinched at the waist.
I imagine it smells great in that house, like the best of home — roasting turkey and sweet onions, a warm spice cake and plain old love.
Wanting to set up a cozy, festive scene, Mary hustles George and the children over to the front of the Christmas tree, in front of their dining room table, which is covered with any amount of household stuff, wrapping paper, bows, cups.
She sets George up and then, in a movement of sheer excitement and focus, leans over and pushes every last thing off of the table.
“Did you see that?” I said, grabbing the remote. “Mary just shoved everything off the table, just wiped it all off!”
I hit the button to replay the moment, pointing it out to my sister-in-law. There it was, again, perfectly clear in black and white.
And that’s when I loved Mary Bailey even more, and recognized her as much more than the perfect mother and iconic housewife Donna Reed later played on The Donna Reed Show. Remember, it was 1946 and wives were being asked to be perfect in every housekeeping, child rearing, self-sacrificing way.
But in that motion, I believed Mary knew she was imperfect and flawed. She was fully aware that the little things – like the table settings, meant nothing. What mattered to her, and you see it throughout the scene, is George; is holding him up in his moment of brokenness and becoming completely immersed in the joy of being able to fix it for him.
And all that matters to him, is her. He cannot stop kissing her or gazing at her or saying her name.
Saccharine? Perhaps, but also full of the kind of love you just want to wrap yourself in forever.