As we close in on Christmas, traditions are being brought out of storage and renewed. One tradition for NBC is showing the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, and watching it is a yearly staple for many Americans.
The story of George Bailey being shown the tragic consequences of what would happen if he was granted his wish of having never been born is beloved, placing 11th on the American Film Institute’s original list of the 100 greatest American films ever made. It was also their top selection for most inspirational film ever made. Remember that as we go through this, that the body whose sole responsibility is judging films made in America chose this as their best inspirational film the country has ever produced.
Many people, of course, would agree with that assessment. George, facing a low point in his life on Christmas Eve, seems ready to kill himself, and makes that wish that he’d never been born. Angel-in-training Clarence comes to Earth in the nick of time with a splashy entrance, and shows George how much he has touched others’ lives. People learn the message that everyone can have a major impact on other people, being a force for good just by being good. That’s one lesson to learn. I learned a different lesson.
In viewing George Bailey’s story, many people tend to overlook or forget the beginning, when two angels, presumably in Heaven, are discussing George’s imminent problem. We see only an image of a starry sky, and star’s twinkle as we hear the voices of the angels. Here’s the beginning of their dialogue, from IMDB:
Senior Angel: Hello Joseph, trouble?
Joseph – Angel: Looks like we’ll have to send someone down. There are a lot of people asking for help for a man named George Bailey.
Senior Angel: George Bailey? Yes! Tonight’s his crucial night. You’re right. We’ll have to send someone down immediately.
So the angels know George is in trouble and they have to help him. It’s a little disconcerting that the senior angel needs to be reminded about it, but that’s probably where Joseph comes in; it’s probably his responsibility to pay attention to the day-to-day task of saving souls. And make no mistake, George Bailey’s very soul is at stake. The angels know he’s planning to kill himself, and since this seems to be a story rooted in Christian beliefs, that would mean George would be committing a mortal sin, committing his soul to Hell to burn in eternal pain and anguish. Kind of a big deal. That’s why the next exchange is so troubling.
Senior Angel: Whose turn is it?
Joseph – Angel: That’s why I came to see you, sir. It’s that clock maker’s turn again.
Senior Angel: [chuckles] Oh, Clarence. Hasn’t gotten his wings yet, has he?
Joseph – Angel: We passed him up right along. Because, you know sir, he’s got the IQ of a rabbit.
Senior Angel: Yes, but he’s got the faith of a child. Simple. Joseph, send for Clarence.
Clarence: You sent for me, sir?
Senior Angel: Yes, Clarence. A man down on earth needs our help.
Clarence: Splendid. Is he sick?
Senior Angel: No, worse. He’s discouraged. At exactly 10:45 pm earth time, that man will be thinking seriously about throwing away God’s greatest gift.
Clarence: Oh, dear, dear. His life. Then I’ve only got 1 hour to dress. What are they wearing now?
Senior Angel: You will spend that hour getting acquainted with George Bailey.
Clarence: Sir, if I should accomplish this mission, I mean… um. Might I perhaps win my wings? I’ve been waiting for over 200 years now, sir, and people ARE beginning to talk.
Senior Angel: What’s that book you’ve got there?
Clarence: Oh, oh, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Senior Angel: Clarence, you do a good job with George Bailey and you will get your wings.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, we find out how the angels go about determining who to send to try to save discouraged people who could be condemning themselves for eternity: a rotation system. There’s no trying to pair up these second-class angels (and Clarence later in the movie calls himself an “angel, second-class” so I’m not just being dismissive here) with people who they can immediately connect with. It’s just whoever is next in the queue, which seems like it would really hurt their success rate. Although, it does seem like they really missed out on a potential franchise here, with hilariously mismatched angels trying to save people they can’t connect with at all. A black angel-in-training trying to save a virulent racist? Sign me up!
But we find out that Clarence isn’t just a potential mismatch, he’s extremely bad at his job. He’s had previous chances and failed–we don’t know how many chances he’s had, but we know he’s been at this for 200 years without success, which is long enough for other people to laugh behind his back (apparently vanity and gossip are still around in Heaven, which is discouraging). We also see that, at least at first, Clarence is doing this for selfish rather than altruistic reasons. He doesn’t necessarily care about George; he just wants his wings.
So the angels in charge of saving a man’s eternal soul send a bumbling half-wit (IQ of a rabbit!) who they know has failed so many times he’s become a running joke. How many times has this sort of thing happened? How many times has a good man–and George Bailey is shown in the course of the movie to be a very good man, frequently sacrificing his own happiness for the good of others–faced one moment of despair and not been saved because the angels just don’t seem to care?
Our eternal souls are in the hands of an apparently apathetic bureaucracy (much, I suppose, like our earthly bodies). Capra’s vision of Christianity and the afterlife is a dark view of unending pain and tragedy if you have a series of bad fortune and don’t get lucky with who intervenes. And that’s from the side that’s supposed to love us! Inspirational, indeed.