The Twelfth Day of Christmas: “It’s a Wonderful Life” from 1946

Twelve Days of Christmas

Today is the twelfth and last day of “The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code.” Starting on Christmas Day, I have reviewed a Christmas classic from the Breen era every day. Tomorrow is the Epiphany, which is the finale of my Yuletide celebration of Code classics. For today’s film, I am going to write about one of the most celebrated Christmas films of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946. This Frank Capra classic is one which has stood the test of time, and the Code helped it do that.

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The movie begins at night in the quiet little town of Bedford Falls. As we see shots of the snowy town, we hear the voices of many people praying for a man named George Bailey. The camera travels to the skies, where we see a few stars, who blink as men’s voices speak for them. These represent angels in heaven. Two angels discuss the fact that there are a lot of prayers for a man named George Bailey, since tonight is his crucial night. They decide to send an angel to earth, so they call for a former clock maker, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), an angel second-class who hasn’t earned his wings yet. First, Clarence has to learn about the man he is going to help, George Bailey. His superior angel shows him a scene from George’s childhood when he was twelve years old. Little George (Bobbie Anderson) is bobsledding on shovels with his friends. His younger brother, Harry (Georgie Nokes), slides too far on the ice and falls into the icy water. George jumps in and saves him. He catches a bad cold, though, and goes deaf in his left ear. After he recovers, he goes back to his job as assistant at Gower’s Drug Store. Two of his regular ice cream customers are Mary Hatch (Jean Gale), a sweet young girl who is secretly in love with him, and Violet (Jeanine Ann Roose), a flirtatious girl who likes George as well as every other boy in town. One day, George is concerned to see that Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner), the druggist, is distraught and intoxicated. When George finds a telegram informing Mr. Gower of his son’s death that morning, he understands why his employer is so miserable. Mr. Gower tells him to deliver some pills, but George realizes in horror that the pills have poison in them. He doesn’t know what to do, so he goes to ask advice from his father (Samuel S. Hinds). Mr. Bailey is arguing with the miser who controls the whole town, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George dislikes the way the mean old man is talking to his father, so he starts arguing with him. His father ushers him out and says he’ll talk to him later. When George gets back to the drug store, Mr. Gower is furious because he hasn’t delivered the pills. He hits his sore ear and makes it start to bleed. Amid his sobs of pain and fear, George tells Mr. Gower that he put poison in the pills, saying that he knows he would never hurt anyone; he is just grieving. Mr. Gower opens a pill and realizes that George is right; he embraces the frightened boy, sobbing with gratitude. Next, George is grown up. He is now a young man (James Stewart) preparing to go on a trip to Europe. That evening, he and his brother (Todd Karns) are having dinner with their father and mother (Beulah Bondi) before Harry’s high school graduation party. George loves his family, but he is so tired of his quiet little hometown. He is dying to see the rest of the world. At the party that night, one of George’s old friends asks him to dance with his younger sister, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who is now grown up and beautiful. There is an immediate attraction between the two of them; George hasn’t noticed her in years, but now he dances with her. One of the other young men is jealous because George is dancing with Mary. During the Charleston contest, he presses the button that makes the floor open to reveal the swimming pool beneath it. George and Mary fall in, and soon the dance has turned into a pool party! Later, George and Mary walk home in some ill-fitting robes and football uniforms that George found. George tells Mary all about his plans to travel the world. Their conversation is interrupted when his brother drives up and says that their father has had a stroke. George hurries away. His father dies; because of that, he delays his trip to Europe. A few months later, George is at a meeting of Bailey Building and Loan, his father’s company. They are trying to decide whether his forgetful, nervous Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) should take over or whether the company should be dissolved. Mr. Potter says that the deceased Mr. Bailey was a failure as a businessman and that the whole thing should be closed down. That makes George furious. He says that he thinks that Bailey Building and Loan should always exist so that the poor people in town can get a decent place to live. He thinks that it should be the one thing that remains out of Mr. Potter’s clutches. He storms out. Soon after, Billy chases after him and says that the board voted to keep the company in existence and to make George the head of it! George wants nothing to do with the company, but he accepts the position anyway and stays in town. He gives his money to Harry so that he can go to college. Four years later, George is finally going to get to leave Bedford Falls, since Harry is coming back from college. When Harry gets off the train, his wife, Ruth (Virginia Patton), is with him! He got married without telling his family. Ruth reveals the fact that her father has offered Harry a really good job in another state. Harry insists that he won’t take the job because it’s his turn to help the family, but George knows that this is his brother’s chance for success. After Harry’s welcome home party that evening, George’s mother tells him that Mary Hatch has returned from college. He wanders over to her house, and she asks him in. He is very disagreeable since he knows that he’s going to have to stay in Bedford Falls. He becomes very angry, but then he and Mary are kissing and embracing each other. He doesn’t want to, but he loves her as much as she loves him. On a very rainy day, he and Mary get married. They drive away from the church in a taxi driven by George’s friend, Ernie (Frank Faylen), talking about their plans for a lavish honeymoon. They haven’t gone very far before George sees frantic people hurrying toward the bank. George gets out of the cab and runs into the Building and Loan building. Billy tells him that there’s a run on the bank. Potter has guaranteed the banks, and they will reopen in a week or so. Now he wants to do the same for Bailey Building and Loan. The Baileys’ office is crowded with desperate people who want their money right away. George convinces them that they have to stick together and not run to Potter in their panic. He gives them all just as much money as they need to get by. When they close at 6 o’clock, all they have left of the honeymoon money is two dollars. George finds out that Mary has made their home in an old boarded-up house that she has always loved, so he goes over there. It is leaky and drafty, but she has covered the broken windows with big travel posters. A rotisserie chicken is roasting in the fireplace, and Ernie and Bert (Ward Bond), George’s policeman friend, sing “I Love You Truly” outside the window. Mary is there, and she says that years ago, on the night of Harry’s graduation, she wished to be married to him and live in this house. As the years go on, George and Mary have four children. Mary fixes up their old house, and George builds a huge Bailey Park full of beautiful, affordable homes for the poor people in town. He helps a lot of hard-working people get out of the slums in Potter’s Field. When World War II comes along, George can’t go because of his bad ear. Harry goes to war, shoots down a lot of enemy planes, and becomes a hero. He is going to come home after being decorated by the president of the United States. On the day before Harry’s homecoming, Billy goes into the bank with $8000 to deposit. He goes over to Mr. Potter and starts bragging to him about Harry being a hero. He absentmindedly puts the $8000 down on Mr. Potter’s newspaper, folds it up, and hands it back to him. When he goes to a teller, he can’t figure out what he did with the money. Once Mr. Potter is in his office, he opens the newspaper and finds the cash. The wicked old man observes Billy’s frantic searching, and he realizes that he finally has a way to destroy Bailey Building and Loan. George searches all day with Billy, but they don’t find anything. George loses all patience with his hysterical uncle, since one of them will go to jail because of the shortage in funds. He goes home, but he is miserable. He snaps at the children, complains about the house, and finally goes berserk and starts turning furniture over. After a brief outburst, he apologizes. Mary is concerned and very upset. She asks him why he has to torture the children like that, and he leaves. After he has left, she calls Billy. George goes to Mr. Potter and asks him to loan him the $8000. He says that he lost the money, but Mr. Potter accusing him of embezzling the funds. When he asks George if he has any collateral, all he can show is a $50,000 life insurance policy. Mr. Potter worthlessly says that he’s worth more dead than alive. He says that he’ll do something for him; he’ll report him to the sheriff and get him arrested. George stumbles out of his office in disbelief. He goes to a bar owned by his friend Martini (Bill Edmunds). Amid the merriment of Christmas Eve, George is in the depths of despair. Not knowing what else to do, he utters a simple prayer asking for help. He starts to cry. Just then, the husband of his daughter’s school teacher comes into the bar and punches George in the mouth for insulting his wife over the telephone. George staggers out of the bar and eventually ends up on a bridge above a cold river. He is somewhat intoxicated, distraught, and desperate. He is about to jump in the river when he hears a splash. Clarence is thrashing around in the river, yelling for help. George jumps in to save him and pulls him to shore. When they are warming up and drying off in a tollhouse on the river shore, George asks Clarence how he fell in the river. Clarence tells him that he’s his guardian angel, that he jumped in the river to prevent George from committing suicide, and that he has to help him to earn his wings. The tollhouse keeper (Tom Fadden) runs out in fear, and George thinks that Clarence is crazy. He doesn’t believe that Clarence is an angel. Clarence tells him that killing himself wouldn’t solve anything. George agrees, saying that it would have been better if he never had been born at all. When he loudly wishes that he never was born, Clarence decides that the best way to help him is to teach him a very dramatic lesson. He says that he has granted his wish, and suddenly a gust of wind blows the door open. George discovers that his lip is no longer bleeding and his ear isn’t deaf any more. He won’t believe it when Clarence tells him that that is because he doesn’t exist; he was never born. Clarence leads him through Bedford Falls, which is now Pottersville. Despite the evidence right and left that George does not exist and never has, he won’t believe Clarence. He finds that his wholesome hometown is now a sleazy dive full of miserable people. All his friends and family members are in a bad way and don’t know who he is. He becomes increasingly disturbed and horrified by what he sees. Will George realize how valuable and wonderful his life has been? Will he be able to get back to the real world and exist again? Will he be able to avoid going to jail and bringing disgrace upon his whole family? Will he ever be able to defeat the evil greed of Potter? Will Clarence earn his wings? Watch the movie to find out!

This was the first movie which Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart made after returning from World War II. It wasn’t met with a huge amount of success, since a lot of other very successful films were released around the same time. It did, however, receive nominations for best picture, best director, best actor, best film editing, and best sound recording from the Academy. It won an Academy Award for Technical Achievement and a Golden Globe for Best Picture. Since then, it has been recognized as one of the finest pictures ever made, and rightly so. It is brilliant.

Jimmy Stewart gives one of his finest performances in this picture. He shows such a wide range of emotions. Donna Reed is very sweet and dramatic in her role of Mary. Thomas Mitchell makes a pathetically befuddled Uncle Billy. Beulah Bondi is a sweet and tender mother to the Bailey boys. Todd Karns is great as Harry. All of George’s children are fine young actors, as are the younger versions of the leading characters. Of course, the film wouldn’t be what it is without Lionel Barrymore’s excellent performance as Potter. He is ineffably mean and cruel in this role. He is a bitter, “twisted old man” as he miserably rolls around in his wheelchair and tries to make everyone else in Bedford Falls as miserable as he is. Henry Travers is perfect in the role of the second-class guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody. The rest of the cast adds dimension and charm to this movie. Everyone is perfectly cast.

The Code ensured that this film is the masterpiece that it is. Without Joseph Breen’s careful supervision, it wouldn’t have the delicacy which makes it a great family film. Although the delicate touch is seen throughout the picture, it is especially important and noticeable in the Pottersville sequence. The town is full of bars, burlesque theatres, taxi dance halls, and pawn shops. One understands just how disreputable and corrupt the town is without being bashed over the head with it. It is painted carefully so that audience members can infer just as much as they want to. That is the marvelous thing about the Code. You have the right to believe anything you want to. You just aren’t bashed over the head with immorality.

The rating system rated this film in 2012. Despite the fact that it received certificate no. 11656 from the PCA, the Classification and Rating Administration rated it PG because of kissing, smoking, drinking, punching, and contemplated suicide. However, none of these things are inappropriate or improper. They are all depicted in a wholesome way. None of them is dangerous or harmful. The contemplated suicide is a very important part of the plot, and it also is a vital point. Depiction and circumstance are everything. George is desperate. Potter told him that he was worth more dead than alive, and that effected him. He thinks that his friends and family will be better off if he kills himself. However, Clarence shows him that every person’s life touches so many others, so no man’s life is worthless. In fact, this movie could convince a person contemplating suicide not to kill himself! If children aren’t properly shown difficult parts of life in good movies, they may be forced to find them out by living them themselves.

Thank you for reading my “Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code” articles. This is the dozenth film I have written for this series. Tomorrow I will write the finale of this series for the Epiphany. The day after that is Russian Christmas, which I will honor with a special article about one of the only films with a Russian Christmas scene. Be sure to come back for those two articles! Thank you for your support. Happy Holidays!

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One thought on “The Twelfth Day of Christmas: “It’s a Wonderful Life” from 1946

  1. Pingback: The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Code! | pure entertainment preservation society

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