The Romantic Allure of Total Commitment in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

by Marc T. Newman [critic]

Marriage is the number one killer of romance. Don’t believe me? Take this simple quiz. Try to think of ten movies, made in the last ten years, that depict a married couple who have a sizzling love life – with each other. Stumped? Now try it again, only this time, name ten films that depict two single people having an intense romantic relationship. Not so hard, is it? Just open the paper to the movie listings and select freely.

People make sense of their lives through the stories of their culture. What we “know” about the world is often not acquired first-hand, but comes to us from secondary sources. In this, the most mediated generation of all time, those stories tend to come from film. It is little wonder, then, that so many young people are putting off marriage. Simply look at the stories that they are most consistently told. Movies tell them that all the events leading up to the wedding are electrifying, full of intense emotional longing, heart fluttering, loss, redemption, and professions of undying love. But “I do” is romantic death.

In last week’s column, I compared the romance message of the vampire teen angst film, Twilight, with the cynical, immature, and anti-marriage message of the appalling Four Christmases. Twilight, I argued, is demonstrably better as a romance film because, while it contains all of the trappings of normal teen courting, it also illustrates that patience, waiting, and sexual restraint before marriage can be a fulfilling source of romance. Additionally, nothing wins a woman over quite like the willingness of her man to face death for her. But there is a holiday film that easily ups the ante in romantic wagers: a man who would certainly be willing to die for his love, but who, instead, chooses to live for her. After all, martyrdom is easy – you only have to die once. Lifetime commitment is harder – you have to be willing to die every day.

In 2006, in the category The Most Powerful Film of All Time, the American Film Institute awarded the number one slot to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. This 1946 release is rightfully a holiday classic, though its only connection to Christmas appears in the last part of the film. Normally lauded as a movie that affirms the value of every human life, it is also a compelling case study of the kind of marriage for which most of us long: a marriage marked by a deep, sacrificial love.

Character before Courting

Very early in the film we meet the future couple as young children. George Bailey is a boy who works as a soda jerk and errand runner at Mr. Gower’s drug store. Even at this young age, he attracts the notice of the girls: specifically Mary Hatch and Violet, who vie for his grudgingly given attention. George is adventurous – he wants to see the world. When Violet confesses that she likes George, Mary replies, “You like every boy.” But not Mary – she only has eyes for George because, even though they are both very young, she sees his admirable character.

George is already a bit of a local hero. When his little brother, Harry, fell through the ice, George risked his own life to save him – costing George hearing in one ear. Mary takes advantage of this emblem of George’s courage. As George looks under the counter for ingredients, Mary leans in next to his head and whispers, “Is this the ear you can’t hear on? George Bailey, I’ll love you till the day I die.”

Moments later, George discovers a telegram that reports the death of Mr. Gower’s son. Moved by pity, George goes to the back room to offer to help in any way he can. Mr. Gower, clearly intoxicated and overcome with grief, is mishandling the prescription he is filling – mistakenly placing a poisonous powder into the capsules. Despite George’s protests, Mr. Gower sends him out on delivery. An hour or so later, when George returns to the store without delivering the “medicine,” Mr. Gower lights into him, hitting him on the ear, until George manages to explain what had happened. Testing the powder, Mr. Gower realizes that George has saved him from a fatal error. He begs George’s forgiveness, and George, understanding the circumstances, promises never to tell anyone. But Mary is still at the soda fountain. She hears everything and it only confirms her opinion that George Bailey is a keeper.

Unlike Violet, Mary is a one-man woman. Years pass, and Mary is graduating from high school. Though she and George have been acquaintances for years, he never really notices her in a romantic way. When her brother button-holes George at the prom, to get him to dance with his “kid sister,” George looks across the floor to find her and sees a young woman, not a kid. She is confident, attractive, admired, and lively. They dance together, fall in the pool together, and finally, walk home together and flirt a bit. She still has her eye on George, and he is beginning to warm to the idea of her, but he is determined to get out of town, see the world, and “build things, great big things.” But George’s father suffers a stroke, and George finds that his plans to go to Europe and head to college have to be put on hold as he runs the building and loan.

Four years pass. George is a good man, but not perfect. He knows disappointment, and though he chooses to do what is right, his sacrifices occasionally grate on him. He feels trapped by the circumstances of his life, and he begins to wonder if he will ever get out of Bedford Falls. His mother advises him to call on Mary Hatch, who has just returned home from college. By now Mary represents everything George both dreads and desires. She loves Bedford Falls and he is, reluctantly but resolutely, in love with her.

Unlike most modern romance films that count on people locking eyes across a crowded room, and falling in love while nearly total strangers, It’s A Wonderful Life takes its time, revealing to us the character qualities that make people good spouses. The movie is a little over two hours in length, yet it takes over 50 minutes to get to the first kiss, followed immediately by the wedding. We pull for George and Mary because they possess all the prerequisites that people should look for in a potential spouse: commitment, self-sacrifice, patience, tender-heartedness, and an eye to the welfare of others. They are kind and constant people in an often ruthless world. George does not yet know it, but he is about to build a “great big thing” – a wonderful life.

In Marriage

Most romance movies focus on the formula: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. In the old films, that was followed by getting married, and the promise that the couple would live happily ever after (though they rarely, if ever, showed that part). Modern films are all about romantic tension – whether the two people will ultimately wind up together. But most of It’s A Wonderful Life takes place after the wedding, as we see George and Mary build a life together that is grounded in their community.

Their first test comes as they speed away to go on a fantastic, and expensive, honeymoon. But as they are heading for the train station, they notice what appears to be a run on the bank. Recognizing the consequences of abandoning their customers, George and Mary end up giving away their honeymoon cash to keep the building and loan solvent. Instead of coming home to a despondent wife, Mary has turned a broken down old house into the Waldorf’s honeymoon suite, complete with chickens roasting in the fireplace on a rotisserie powered by a record player. Honeymoons are not about exotic locations, they are about being with the one you love.

As long as they are together, they can be happy. They have struggles. George must contend with the greedy machinations of Mr. Potter – the richest, yet most miserable, man in Bedford Falls. But no matter how bad things get at the building and loan, George can come home to Mary, and eventually his children, and all is right with the world.

Mary is content. She spends her hours refurbishing their dilapidated house. They drive an old car. But the work is rewarding, and George helps many of the people in his community through the building and loan. Returning home one night after a particularly difficult day, George wonders aloud, “why did you ever marry a guy like me?” when she could have married the rich “Sam Wainright, or anybody else in town.” Mary looks up at him and replies, “I didn’t want to marry anybody else in town. I want my baby to look like you.” No man, upon hearing such words, could long remember any of his temporal troubles.

According to Shaunti Feldham in her book, For Women Only, many men feel like frauds in their work. They are concerned that they cannot meet life’s expectations, and they are afraid that they are letting their wives down. That is why the most important thing Feldham says that a wife can do for her husband is to be reassuring, “By staunchly supporting our men, showing that we believe in them, and providing an emotionally safe environment to come home to, we can help give them at least the emotional confidence they need to dive back into the workplace fray.” Feldham’s comments might seem politically unpopular to some segments of society, but it’s funny how when such statements are made in the context of a classic film, they still manage to ring true. Mary loves George unconditionally, and he adores her for it.

For Worse

It’s A Wonderful Life is hardly Father Knows Best. George finally comes up against a problem he cannot solve. His Uncle Billy has misplaced the deposit for the building and load. George is frantic. He tries to figure any way out that he can, including humbling himself before the imperious Potter. When he comes home, defeated, his family life seems like an indictment. He is probably going to jail for mismanagement of funds. All that he has ever cherished or worked for is slipping away. In his frustration he lashes out, and in his embarrassment he leaves the house. His final thought, as he walks toward a bridge with his insurance policy in his pocket, is that he is worth more to his family dead than alive.

Everyone knows the plot from here, and it is a beautiful, life-affirming story. But I would like to focus directly on the relationship between husband and wife. We know that George will learn to appreciate the impact his life has had on everyone around him. He is driven to the understanding that his wife and his children are invaluable. However, it is easy to forget what is going on behind the scenes while George is having his epiphany. The film opens with the entire town interceding in prayer for George Bailey – most fervent are the prayers of his children and his wife. They are the people who, acting faithfully behind the scenes, best demonstrate their love for George.

Mary has called the building and loan to find out what is the matter, she sends her children off to pray for daddy, she spreads the word about the Bailey family’s impending calamity, and it is averted. All of the character qualities Mary has loved in George have borne fruit. His kindness to the druggist, his generosity toward an immigrant family, his steadfast friendship toward all of the people in his community come back to him as everyone arrives on Christmas Eve in one of the most worthwhile, completely voluntary corporate bailouts of all time.

One the bridge, George begs God for another chance, “I want to live again! Please, God, I want to live again!” and it is granted. He returns to a renewed appreciation for his family, and for his life. He has perspective. His wife has not been idle; she has been working hard to help solve their problems. It is intimated that they live happily ever after, and we believe it.

Heavyweight Romance

Compared to the kind of love exhibited in It’s A Wonderful Life, almost all modern films appear as lightweights. Capra’s film doesn’t pull any punches. George’s life has plenty of disappointment, and he and Mary’s marriage is sometimes visibly strained. She is not afraid to set him straight when he is off the mark, because she is confident, ultimately, in his love for her. And after many years of marriage, it is clear that both George and Mary still possess a deep, abiding passion for one another that would put the cotton candy airiness of most modern film romances to shame.

George is a man, tried in the crucible of many adversities, who has demonstrated steadfast character. Mary is a woman committed to him until death. According to the Bible, these are the ingredients for a good marriage. The Apostle Paul told men to love their wives with the sacrificial love that Christ has for the Church, admonishing them to nourish and cherish their spouses. Proverbs 31:10-12 notes, “An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good and not evil all the days of her life.”

So instead of working so hard to find the right person, the message of It’s A Wonderful Life is that people should concern themselves with being the right person. Instead of looking at our circumstances, we should be concerned with our character. What woman would not want a steadfast, loyal, loving, committed husband? What man would not want a caring, nurturing, devoted, committed wife? It’s A Wonderful Life may be a fantasy film, but it would not work if the foundational elements were not rooted in reality. It shows us both what we truly want in a marriage, and what kinds of people we would need to be in order to get it. It’s A Wonderful Life is a classic because its message does not wane with the passage of time.

Some might argue that It’s a Wonderful Life is sentimental, but unrealistically old-fashioned. “Times change” is the mantra of the postmodern. Instead of lamenting that one cannot “turn back the clock,” I would argue that if it is telling the wrong time, then that is precisely what we should do. Pull out the stem and move the hands until they align with reality, and then get it moving forward again. We owe as much to our spouses, and to our families. A good look at It’s A Wonderful Life might be an excellent place to begin this Christmas season. ExileStreet

copyright 2008 Marc T. Newman

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of

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