George Bailey is the Perfect Movie Character
My favorite movie is It’s a Wonderful Life.
When I tell people that, they assume I must be a sap. Those people have clearly never watched It’s a Wonderful Life; their knowledge ending and beginning with Zuzu’s “Evey time a bell rings…” line. The Capra film is not lighthearted, nor is it a feel-good tale, even if the ending is uplifting.
George Bailey is the most misunderstood character in all of cinema. The man at the heart of It’s a Wonderful Life strives to be good because it is expected of him but he isn’t purely altruistic and his arduous journey through his own personal heart of darkness–a financial collapse on Christmas Eve that leaves him convinced he’s better off dead than alive–brings out his darkest, most selfish instincts. It’s the fight against those instincts that makes It’s a Wonderful Life such a complex narrative and George Bailey the ideal cinematic character.
He’s the underdog in every sense of the word, a dreamer with plans to see the world that never come to fruition. In that way, he is the ultimate tragic figure. Time and time again throughout the film we watch as George accepts his fate to never leave Bedford Falls, but what people often fail to realize is that he rages against this fate. He stays first out of familial obligations and then because of an injury sustained in childhood while saving his younger brother that forces him to stay out of the War. He rages against his inability to leave, as signified in the scene when he professes he loves Mary, the hometown girl content with staying in her small town, leading a normal life.
George is angry that he loves Mary because he knows what it means. He is accepting in that moment that he’s staying put, that the trunk his old employer bought him will never be used by him. It’s this push and pull between his idea of what his life should be and what it actually becomes that makes George the perfect cinematic character.
His struggle is a universal one. It’s the struggle of life itself: the dream version of ourselves versus the reality. Like many of us, George has trouble reconciling these two parts of himself. Yes, he gets an angel sent to save him from self-destructing, a luxury we don’t all have, but even this miraculous twist isn’t nearly as sappy as it could be. His influence in even the smallest of ways make a difference. Even if he can become angry, frustrated and lost, he’s still a good man. Not a saint, but a person who deserves to be reminded that his existence matters.
Throughout movie history we’ve met suave spies, average joes, superheroes, Job figures like George– but none of them have ever felt quite as real to me as George Bailey. It’s easy to get lost in all the things we don’t have, particularly during the holiday season, and George is the walking embodiment of that sentiment. Add in Jimmy Stewart’s gorgeous performance that encompasses a whole range of emotions from disappointment, unbridled optimism, anger, self-loathing and humility when faced with the generosity of his friends and family and it becomes clear George isn’t any one thing. George can not be boiled down to one word or type.
His struggle is heartbreaking, and even the happiness of the ending is debatable depending on how much of a dreamer still lurks in your heart. Not many film characters linger in my mind; movies sure, but the characters themselves rarely leave an impression that lasts as long as the plot. But George? George is It’s a Wonderful Life. He is impossible to forget, impossible not to root for even in his rare moments of petulance. His Christmas story is my Christmas story and maybe yours too. For those reasons, I deem him the perfect movie character.
Agree? Disagree? Share your reasons in the comment section.
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