Step right up, ladies and gentlemen and witness the most depressing movie ever! Stare in wonder at the film that will make you want to kill yourself, just like the main character! Only pennies on the dollar will gain you access to the saddest story ever masquerading as a happy ending! It’ll leave you in tears! It’ll leave you in confusion! It’ll leave you thinking that capitalism is a drain on our society and that money solves every problem you’ll ever have! So, step right up, everybody and see it with your own eyes! Your friends won’t believe what you saw!
Now, I remember seeing this film last Christmas and while it is a really great film…it wins the “Depressing As Fuck” Award for sure (It also won the “Most Recognizable Because It Was In Home Alone” Award…which surprised a lot of people who thought that the Talkboy toy should’ve won it hands down).
We first begin at the end and no that’s not a riddle: what’s heard is what will later be revealed to be the end of the film where prayers for George Bailey are being heard all over town by two star clusters in the air (that are apparently angels). The two stars/angels decide that Clarence, an angel who needs to earn his wings, is to go down to Bedford Falls to help George. “Is he sick?” he asks. “No, worse,” the other angel responds, “he’s discouraged.” I only really included this to get a consensus if this was meant to be funny because if so, then damn, this movie is darker than I thought. We’re only 2 minutes in and already it’s starting with dark comedy leading up to a man’s attempted suicide.
The film then jumps from the end to beginning and no, not another riddle- we’re shown some events in George’s life as a child as he grows up: he saves his little brother from drowning in a frozen lake (which seems to be a theme in these Christmas movies if you all remember Lost Christmas); he helps his old boss at the soda shop from using pills to poison someone (I think? This was super unclear, but basically pills= bad); and we see George’s desire to escape his town to travel and explore the world, but one thing or another hinders his journey. The most important incident in the film being Henry Potter, Bedford Falls own Scrooge/Mr. Burns, wants to dissolve the small bank/loan company his father owns because he’s an asshole. I mean, sure, I guess there are business/money oriented reasons why he doesn’t want the business around, but, no, really, this old man is just an asshole. This character has no other dimension except “asshole.” Even after George’s father dies, he wants this business gone and it would’ve easily happened except the board (of what, I’m not sure) decides that as long as George stays in his father’s place, they won’t allow Mr. Burns Potter to take over. And thus, another obstacle in George’s way that stops him in his tracks of wanderlust.
What I always enjoyed about this film is its ability to say so much by having the audience “read between the lines” as it were. What would seem like insignificant moments are constantly thrown in but they built to something solid: George being supremely excited to have a giant suitcase as a gift (for traveling) or him carrying around pamphlets to other countries, far away from his home town sends the message that this is really going to happen for him and as a viewer, you become excited for him. Which makes that soon-to-be fall that much harder when he has to decide between his own happiness and keeping his father’s business alive that has helped other people keep their homes. There’s no hand-wringing speech from George in his conflict, there’s no lamenting from other characters…you simply see him being told that either he stays or the board is voting to shut it down and George’s face tells the story.
But it’s going to be fine, right? I mean, his brother is just going off to college which is only four years and then he can come and take over and George can be happy, right? RIGHT?! I mean, it’s not like his younger brother is going to come back educated, married with another job offer which would mean George is stuck…that could only happen to the most unlucky man in the world….right?
Besides pulling out the audience’s heart, stabbing it with glass and rubbing it in dog shit…it actually does romance and sweetness very well. The entire first scene with George and Mary on their date is an unexpected happy moment (but to be fair, this also happens before the category five shit storms hits and his father dies). The actors are playful and light and while watching it, you just feel all gooey inside with rainbows and puppies and candy hearts! The 1920s flirting is on point! It also makes their fight the next time they see each other just that much more heart-wrenching. It’s also such a beautifully shot piece of drama where again, George’s face tells the story. As a mutual friend is telling them of a job opportunity to invest in soy bean plastic (don’t ask), and simultaneously, both Mary and George’s faces start to sink. George grows upset because he sees this as another obstacle in his way and Mary grows upset because she knows George does not want to stay and work in their hometown and knows that’s upsetting him; all the while, they know they care for each other and don’t want the other to leave. I really just love any of their scenes together.
Much like real life, the obstacles only get bigger as George gets older. After the marriage and (much later) children come, the stakes become much higher and the need to keep the business in tact becomes that much more important. And even more important: money. It seems a lot of problems can be solved if only there was more money to go around (HOLY SHIT WHAT A CONCEPT). When George’s business is lacking in funds, he feels he’s forced to ask Mr. Potter for help who tells him, among other things, that he is “a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places because he’s trapped.” And if you listen carefully enough, you will hear my heart shattering into thirty thousand pieces. And while I was trying to sweep them back up into the dustpan, Mr. Potter offers George a job that would pay him more money than God, but of course, he’d have to close his business. And I think you can all guess what George chose; he now became his own obstacle to happiness as he chose what’s right over what’s comfortable.
One of the more confounding aspects of this movie is Uncle Billy- a seemingly drunk bespectacled man who works at the bank and has a crow flying around him at all times which is NEVER EXPLAINED. [WHY IS THERE A CROW EVERYWHERE?! IS IT TO WARN PEOPLE IN THE BANK OF THINGS TO COME?!] When Uncle Billy loses $8,000, the news soon spreads around town and George is looking to be the one to take the fall. After screaming at his family and getting drunk (as one would when facing possible prison bars for mishandling bank funds), he runs into the angel from the beginning of the movie and we finally see the section of the movie that everyone has heard of: what if George was never born? Well, it seems Bedford Falls (now “Pottersville”) is full of strip clubs and gravesites! His brother is dead since George didn’t save him and Uncle Billy is in an insane asylum…there is no word on what happened to the crow. So George decides he wants to live and I suppose it’s a good thing he did (plus having some rich friends), as their soy bean/plastic friend wires over $25,000 and the day is saved!
FINAL WORDS: Remember, kids: money solves everything. And if you can’t be rich, then have rich friends. And if you can’t have either, then sell out your family early so you can have rich friends and be rich along with them, otherwise, life is going to suck. And also, keep a crow around for no reason.