George’s image of his wife without him is crucial to the movie, yet critics continue to overlook its true—and profound—meaning.
Despite falling into obscurity upon its original release, It’s a Wonderful Life’s eventual triumph was practically unavoidable. For starters, it stars Jimmy Stewart. For another, it has a sinister undercurrent, as does all of the best Christmas fiction. It, like A Christmas Carol or A Charlie Brown Christmas, deals with death as well as the resurrection of human hopes. Most significantly, its emotional impact builds rather than lessens with repeated viewings over time.
A well-established icon is an enticing target, and the race to come up with the definitive contrarian takedown of the film has become a Christmas sub-tradition in and of itself. Every year, people write articles on how Mr. Potter is a new urbanist, Bedford Falls is full of NIMBYs, George is a toxic narcissist, Uncle Billy caused the financial crisis, or hmm, the movie is actually extremely depressing? or high school gyms don’t have swimming pools underneath them. Every year, I read them and laugh because I know the film will bury them all.
But one critique has always been more difficult for me to dismiss: the Mary issue. When George Bailey attempts suicide after a lifetime of sacrificially unfulfilled ambitions and desires, facing bankruptcy and shame at the hands of his venal foes and inept friends, his guardian angel Clarence is summoned to assist him. Clarence shows George what his town would have looked like if George had never been born into it in an attempt to persuade him that he has had “a magnificent existence” and that it would be a crime to throw it away. So far, everything is well.
Clarence shows George the lives in which he engaged at a vital juncture or shaped through the cascading impacts of his choices: the brother he saved from drowning as a child, the pharmacist preoccupied with grief whom he kept from inadvertently poisoning a child, and so on. Finally, George requests that Clarence show him his wife, Mary. “You’re not going to like it,” Clarence predicts. In the absence of George, Mary dresses like an elderly woman, closing the library in a skirt suit and spectacles.
Aside from the problematic inference that the worst fate a woman may face is a single life as a small-town librarian, this scenario defies comprehension. The thought that Mary, played by a radiant Donna Reed, who has been illuminating the screen with her charisma and warmth for the last hour and a half, would be short of suitors in George’s absence is absurd. It’s disrespectful that she needs George to be rescued from spinsterhood as much as his brother needs him to be rescued from death. It adds a nasty touch to Clarence’s spectacle of significance. Must George constantly and only relate to others as a savior, even in his most intimate relationships? If he wasn’t there, Mary would be the wife of wealthy plastics producer Sam Wainwright, wrapped in a beautiful mink coat and spared a life of toil, care, and George’s bad moods, I reasoned.
It was a defect in the picture, I had to admit, even though I had little love for the critics who pointed it out to me. At most, I could interpret that as saying that George was not a simple hero and that Clarence could only offer him a version of reality he could accept—one in which even his absence did not leave him superseded by another. I claimed that the film is excellent because it depicts both the redemption of a self-pitying egoist and the vindication of a heroically self-denying preserver of his home and servant of his people. These positions are often mutually exclusive in many stories. They coexist in life and in this film in tension, but without contradiction—such is the pity and possibilities of the human heart.
This is still my belief. But I no longer believe it is related to the Mary problem in the same way, and I no longer stand by my previous resolution of the matter. Last year, I had the opportunity to see It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen, in my town’s theatre. Perhaps you just see things differently with time—after all, this is one of the film’s attractions. Perhaps seeing the film as it was intended to be seen yields new insights. In any case, I found myself paying attention to one exchange in a way I hadn’t before.
George: Mary Hatch, why in the world did you ever marry a guy like me?
Mary: To keep from being an old maid.
George: You could have married Sam Wainwright, or anybody else in town.
Mary: I didn’t want anybody else in town. I want my baby to look like you.
Mary’s humorous, obviously ludicrous retort, “to avoid being an old maid,” foreshadows the scenario that the alternative reality presents us with. This became my interpretive key to the problem later scenario once I discovered it.
Mary selects George from the start, not the other way around. In a childhood scenario, she sits at the bar and whispers in his bad ear, “George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die,” as George drones on about coconuts. Her eyes lock on him with the adoring, predatory glitter of a wifely panther as they reunite at the high school dance. She chases him throughout their weird, bittersweet courtship, just as Barbara Stanwyck did in The Lady Eve, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or Barbra Streisand in What’s Up Doc? George, for one, is as enraged, as protesting, and ultimately as helpless as any of his colleagues. It’s a screwball chump-chase transferred into the drama register, with George playing the chump.
Mary could marry anybody she wanted in town. She is adamantly opposed. She desires George. She assesses George, noticing something in him that he cannot see and that may just be partially obvious to us. What Mary sees in him does not represent any of George’s ill-fated dreams for himself.
Mary sees the potential of the ancient house from the start, Mary buys it and patiently restores it over time. Mary sees the impending bank run as well as its solution, and she hands up their honeymoon money without wasting time seeking permission or expressing remorse. A repeating characteristic deed in George’s life is noble adherence to duty when circumstances demand it. But Mary sees the bigger picture right away. She is adamant that George will capture the moon, even if she is the only one who can see it.
Being a popular and beautiful lady who can marry a rich and popular man if she so desires is undoubtedly pleasant, but it is not unusual. It is less common to see the life and man you desire with Mary’s perfect clarity and eerie confidence, and to choose it in the face of discouragement, with all its disadvantages obvious, to persevere single-mindedly in the face of adversity. It’s a Wonderful Life is, in part, the narrative of someone becoming a huge man against all odds, kicking and screaming. Because Mary is a huge woman, she immediately recognizes George as a big man.
She, like George, is a deeply unusual individual struggling with her own personal destiny. In a world without George, she has not married because she cannot, but because she does not want to. There are no Mary-sized men in town, and Mary Hatch does not do anything simply because it is required of her. In this counterfactual, her tale is tragic, but it is not one of passive acquiescence to circumstance.
Being selected, known, and loved by such a woman is no minor feat. It is seeing Mary without him that causes George to beg for his life, as it is her rage at him that leads him into the most desperate stage of his downward spiral. When he chases the other Mary through the streets, his desperate cries are not “Mary! “What have they done to you?” but “Do you not know who I am? “What became of us?” If Mary does not recognize him, if she does not recognize who he truly is, he must not exist.
I would not go back and modify the sequence I originally believed was the sole big flaw in a wonderful movie if I had Frank Capra’s ear, a gasper, and a martini in my hand, and the studio at my disposal. It is the finale of a wonderful love story—as many great love stories are—between people with children and not enough money, disappointments, and shameful failures. It is an awareness of a woman’s surprising depths, which are all too frequently dismissed as attractive adornment in her own story. But, more importantly, it marks a turning point in Clarence’s story to George. For all the remarkable, irreplaceable good George has done for others, what has been done for him is what makes his life finally wonderful—awe-inspiring, mystifying. After all, he never set out to win Mary Hatch.
For all the remarkable, irreplaceable good George has done for others, what has been done for him is what makes his life finally wonderful—awe-inspiring, mystifying. After all, he never set out to win Mary Hatch.
George: Clarence! Clarence! Help me, Clarence. Get me back. Get me back. I don’t care what happens to me. Only get me back to my wife and kids. Help me Clarence, please! Please! I want to live again!
But when he returns, there is no devastation or humiliation. Everyone in town has heard he’s in danger, and everyone in town—all the people he’s helped and saved over the years—has sprung into action to help him out. Money has emerged at the eleventh hour, seemingly out of thin air, not to save the Building and Loan, but for his sake.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” says Uncle Billy. “Mary did it, George, Mary did it.”