One of my favorite things about Christmas season is the sheer anticipation of watching Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. Every year I watch it, and each time a different scene stands out with new significance. This time around, I was especially moved by a scene near the beginning, where George and Mary walk through the quiet streets of Bedford Falls in ill-fitting clothes after their graduation party turned into an unexpected soaking. The night is romantic, a full moon backlights the starry-eyed couple. I was struck by a particular event in this scene, and how it ultimately sets the stage for the central, moral crossroad of the film.
After Mary shies away from one of George's advances, he picks up a rock and declares his intention to shatter one of the windows in the old hotel, facetiously casting his wishes into the winds of fate just as he does with the cigarette lighter every time he enters Mr. Gower's store. "Oh no, I love that old house... so filled with romance. I'd like to live in it," Mary tries to stop him. "This old thing? I wouldn't live in it as a ghost," George retorts. They end up both throwing a rock, each accompanied by a wish. George has no secrets: he's going to travel the world, build great things, shake the dust of this crummy little town off his feet. In other words, he's wrapped up in an escapist fantasy that is totally unrelated to real life.
Mary, on the other hand, dares not speak her wish aloud, because unlike George's fantasy, her fantasy truly leaves her vulnerable. She imagines living in that very house, with George at her side, come what may. Her fantasy isn't escapist; it's practical. Mary is grounded in reality; George is out lassoing moons with his wild imagination.
Reality is the thing that crops up again and again throughout George's life, always impeding the realization of his escapist fantasies. On one hand, his idealistic future seems almost in his grasp; on the other hand, his moral compass obliges him to meet the needs of the people in his life. Later in the film, a fun drawing of George lassoing the moon almost seems to mock his dreams and desires and he is unable to find the humor in it.
Forget Clarence: Mary Hatches is the true angel in George's life. I cried at the end of the film, just like everyone else, but what made me cry this time was the look on Mary's face in that defining moment when grace is suddenly dumped upon George's life. She looks over at George, her eyes wet and an embarrassed smile on her face as if to say, "See? THIS is all I ever wanted."
George had to go to hell and back before he could recognize what was right in front of him. The frightening thing, to me at least, is the suggestion that Pottersville, with all its glitz, music and glamour, is actually the manifestation of George's fantasies. "We serve hard drinks for men who want to get drunk fast," Pottersville-Nick tells George in the bar. Here, moral obligations are dismissed and forgotten as casually as George and Clarence are tossed out into the snow. For George, the true horror of his alternate reality is not that the people in his life no longer know him. I think the moment of true horror is his realization that THIS is what he had been chasing.
"There's no place like home," Dorothy realizes after her experiences in dream land. George can only reach the same conclusion. His reality - the relationships he has formed, the struggles he has endured, the family he's nurtured - is truly the best he can experience. In the eyes of the dreamer, this could be seen as a bitter disappointment. But in the eyes of Frank Capra (and Mary Hatches), this is what happiness is all about.
"Sentimental hogwash," Potter might scoff. Well screw you Potter. I think Mary got it right. And I'm unabashedly proud of George Bailey and his pathetic, wonderful little life.