“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite film. The first, post-war release of director Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart, in 1946, was a box-office failure, yet both said over the years that it was their favorite too. It wasn’t until 1973, when the movie slipped into the public domain and could be shown on any TV station for free, that it became a perennial Christmas classic.
I must have seen it at least twenty times and will probably see it another twenty times. But it was only after reading Henri Nouwen’s extraordinary book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, did the film’s true meaning, and why it so resonated with me, become clear.
It’s a Wonderful Life is really about the parable of the prodigal son, told from the elder son’s point of view. The elder son who stayed home and took care of his family and community is George Bailey. George’s young life is filled with dreams of great adventure. He declares, “I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I’m going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then I’m coming back here and go to college and see what they know… and then I’m going to build things. I’m gonna build airfields. I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.”
In reality, George never leaves his hometown, Bedford Falls, or his job at The Building and Loan. One by one, he sacrifices his dreams to save those of his family and community. And though he sees himself as a failure, everyone else sees him as a hero.
As a young boy, he saves his younger brother, Harry, from drowning and, in the process, loses his hearing in one ear, which keeps George out of the war. When Mr. Gower, the pharmacist, distraught over the loss of his own son to influenza, nearly poisons a sick boy with the wrong prescription, it is George who prevents it. He saves The Building and Loan from closure after his father’s death, when the Board votes to keep it open only on the condition that George stay to run it, thus forfeiting his trip to Europe and his college education.
George gives his long-saved college money to his brother, Harry, who, though hardly the prodigal, goes on to glory on the football field and in the war, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism.
To everyone’s surprise, when Harry returns briefly home after college, he has married and accepted a lucrative job away from Bedford Falls, rather than take George’s place at The Building and Loan to allow George his turn at college. As Harry steps off the train and asks, “Where’s Mother,” George declares, “She’s home, cooking the fatted calf,” a line drawn directly from the parable of the prodigal son.
At last, on Christmas Eve, George’s inept but lovable Uncle Billy loses The Building and Loan’s $8,000 deposit. George takes responsibility for the loss, as he faces a crisis he cannot overcome, or so it seems.
George always puts the needs of his family and his community before his own. He learned this trait from his father, Peter, who, as George says, never once thought of himself. Over time, George is tempted to become bitter as he sees his own hopes and dreams dashed one by one, thinking his life a pointless existence.
Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took the one less traveled and that has made all the difference.” It is George’s consistent choice to serve others, the less traveled path, that saves and joyfully fulfills him and those around him in the end.
May God bless you and yours during this holiday season and in the New Year!