A Man With a Plan
Small-town boy George Bailey has got big plans.
He wants to go to college, travel the world, design cities—be a regular Renaissance man, like Leonardo da Vinci or, uh, James Franco. But dreams die hard in Bedford Falls, and he has to reckon with a humbler existence. Which, this being a Frank Capra film, fortunately turns out to be pretty "wonderful" after all. George is the prototypical Capra hero: the decent, ordinary man who stands up for the little guy against the corruption of the wealthy and powerful.
When we first hear about George, we learn from a couple of angels that he's thinking of killing himself. On Christmas Eve, no less. The dude is desperate. Why? The angels explain: he's "discouraged." We'd call that a major existential understatement. We guess angels always hang on to a little hope. They choose an apprentice angel, Clarence, to go down to Earth to try to rescue George.
Before he goes, they fill him (and us) in on George's life up to now.
Little George Bailey thinks big. Industrious kid that he is, he takes a job in a drugstore after school even though his buddies tease him about being a "slave." He needs the money—he's got big plans. He tells little Mary over the soda fountain counter:
GEORGE: You don't like coconuts! Say, brainless, don't you know where coconuts come from? Lookit here—from Tahiti—Fiji islands, the Coral Sea!
MARY: A new magazine! I never saw it before.
GEORGE: Of course you never. Only us explorers can get it. I've been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society. […] I'm going out exploring some day, you watch. And I'm going to have a couple of harems and maybe three or four wives. Wait and see.
George never loses that restless ambition. After graduating from high school and working for his father for four years, he gets ready to travel the world that summer before heading off to college:
GEORGE: I'm shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I'm going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm coming back here and go to college and see what they know. And then, I'm going to build things. I'm gonna build air fields. I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I'm gonna build bridges a mile long.
The dream gets delayed as George has to take over the family business when his younger bro gets a great job offer out of town. But, when he marries Mary Hatch, he plans a whirlwind honeymoon—the trip he's been waiting for all his life, even if it doesn't include Fiji and Rome. We can see his dreams have been scaled back a bit, but he still can't wait to get out of town:
GEORGE: You know what we're going to do? We're going to shoot the works. A whole week in New York. A whole week in Bermuda. The highest hotels, the oldest champagne, the richest caviar, the hottest music, and the prettiest wife!
By setting up George as a guy with big dreams, we can better understand how hard it is for him to see the value in his decent, ordinary life in Bedford Falls. Because he had such high hopes, he sees himself as a failure when even his ordinary life starts to unravel; his unrealistic expectations inevitably lead to disappointment.
Who's a Good Boy?
From the get-go, we see that George is a selfless, good guy who started out as an energetic, good kid. Young George saves his younger brother, Harry, from drowning in a freezing-cold pond while out sledding, getting pneumonia and damaging his own hearing in the process. He doesn't hesitate for a second to jump in after his little bro.
One day, George notices that his boss at the drugstore where he works, Mr. Gower, has accidentally written the wrong prescription for a sick kid—poison instead of medicine. Gower is distraught over news of the death of his own son, and he's drinking and not paying attention to what he's doing.
George doesn't know what to do about the deadly mix-up, so he stops in to ask his banker father for advice. His dad is in the middle of an argument with Mr. Potter, a greedy guy who owns half the town. Potter is ridiculing Peter Bailey for being a bleeding heart and lending money to all of the poor people in town. George jumps to his dad's defense and tells Potter off.
George decides on his own that he can't deliver that killer prescription, so he goes back to the drugstore. Gower hits George on the ear when he sees George returning the medicine, but he apologizes and cries when the kid explains what almost happened. George prevented certain disaster.
These early scenes clue us in to what kind of man George will grow up to be: considerate, selfless, and protective. Lots of energy, lots of friends, all-around good guy. So, why is he about to throw himself off a bridge on Christmas Eve?
Doing the Right Thing
After working for his dad for four years, George is ready to roll. He's going to go to college, travel the world, build skyscrapers, and design cities. Shmoop is exhausted just thinking about it. His father asks him to reconsider and stay home to run the business.
GEORGE: I—I couldn't face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office ... I'd go crazy. I—I want to do something big, something important. [...] I just feel like if I didn't get away, I'd bust.
His father thinks that the shabby little office has helped a lot of people get homes; isn't that important, too? But, being a good dad (like father, like son), he understands George's ambitions. George doesn't get to do any of it. His father dies suddenly, and George has to stick around to clear up his father's business affairs. Mr. Potter wants to close the bank because George's father was a terrible businessman, loaning money to people who couldn't pay it back. George stands up to him again:
GEORGE: Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about ... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book, he died a much richer man than you'll ever be.
This is a quintessential Capra moment, btw. Potter, of course, thinks it's all "sentimental hogwash."
(Deep thought: maybe that's Capra satirizing what some critics think about his films. How meta.)
George convinces the investors to keep the bank open. The kicker? The only way they'll stay on is if George takes over the reins. He doesn't want to do it; he's been waiting for his chance to get out:
GEORGE: I'm leaving. I'm leaving right now. I'm going to school. This is my last chance.
It's painful to watch George struggle with his feelings about leaving vs. duty.
CLARENCE: I know, I know. He didn't go.
George doesn't go. He gives his college savings money to Harry, who promises to take over the business when he graduates and give George his freedom. But, Harry gets a great job offer from his new father-in-law, and George can't let him turn it down. You can see the look on George's face as he sees his dreams fading once again. Stuck in Bedford Falls. His consolation prize is Mary Hatch, who's been carrying a torch for him since those soda fountain days. George falls hard for her and marries her—the only upside to staying in town.
Like his father, George continues helping people in the town buy their own houses. Underneath, though, his discontent is simmering. He's managing to prevent Mr. Potter from buying up the whole town and exploiting its citizens, but at the same time, he feels like he hasn't lived up to his full potential. He and Mary even have to give up their honeymoon money in order to help keep the Building and Loan afloat during a run on the bank that would've resulted in Potter taking over the business.
George does right by Bedford Falls by keeping his business afloat:
GEORGE: This town needs this crummy one-horse institution if for no other reason than to keep people from crawling to Potter.
Will this good guy ever get what he deserves?
A Losing Battle?
George spends much of his adult life trying to stand up to Potter, who's the total opposite of George. George seems to have the moral high ground, that's for sure:
GEORGE: You're right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But, neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character because his whole life was ... Why, in the 25 years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what's wrong with that?
But, Potter plants seeds of doubt. He offers George a job at an impossibly high salary, more than George ever dreamed of making. The Building and Loan has always been a threat to Potter's business aspirations, which seem to involve taking over the whole town. When he sees that George can't be bought (although he's sure tempted), he ups the ante, appealing to George's dreams of accomplishing big things. After Billy "loses" the Building and Loan's deposit money (i.e., Potter pocketing it), Potter moves in for the kill and threatens to frame George for misappropriating his customers' funds.
This is when George's doubts and disappointments come flooding in. All of his struggles to keep the business afloat, his desperate efforts to provide for his family, the trust of his customers—all of this seems to be crashing down around him. He begins to lose faith in everything he's believed in, everything that has kept him going. He turns to the only thing he thinks might save him. He prays to God for help.
Somebody up there likes George Bailey.
Heaven Is Really on Earth
God sends out an APB to the angels that there's a guy on Earth who needs help ASAP. The senior angels dispatch an angel, second-class, to try to save him and show him that there's a lot to live for. Clarence, the angel, jumps into the river before George can. He's seen the "movie" of George's life, including George jumping into the water to save Harry, and he knows George will jump in to rescue him, too. When George tells him it would have been better if he'd never been born, Clarence grants the wish. Then, he takes him on a tour of what things would be like without him.
It's quite an epiphany for George. Realizing that his life really has touched so many people, he returns to the land of the living practically jumping with joy. Yep. This is one feel-good moment that just can't be beat.
Daniel Sullivan has pointed out that the movie is shot through with George's conflict between escapist fantasy and rootedness, between dreams and duty, between exotic places and everyday domestic happiness. In spite of his grandiose dreams, George lands in the everyday real world and finds that's where he's happiest. He's still idealistic, but he is grown-up and grounded now, knowing that what really matters are friends, family, faith, and community.
It is a wonderful life, after all.