Near where I live in Florida, in the working town that is Tampa, there is an old theater that bears the name of the city in which it can be found. It is gorgeous. The Tampa Theatre opened in 1926, and it is a throwback to when venues for watching movies were truly palaces. From the bright marquee out front, to the opulence inside more reminiscent of an Italian villa on the Mediterranean than a cineplex, it is a must for any serious film lover. You know how when you see people in movies going to movies, and there is a balcony level on which the characters seem to always sit? It has that, too. Simply put, it is a treasure, and you can see a movie in this classic setting today. Speaking of classics, I bring up this landmark because it was there that I first saw today’s film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
If you believe in guardian angels like I do, then It’s a Wonderful Life offers a vision of how this works at the start. George Bailey’s (James Stewart) guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), is summoned to account for his charge’s recent contemplation of suicide. In order to get to the root of the matter, they decide to review George’s entire life, starting when he was twelve (Bobbie Anderson) and saved his brother Harry (Georgie Nokes) from drowning in a frozen pond. This heroic act, unfortunately, left him deaf in one ear. Regardless, he endears himself to everyone in town, including Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner), the town druggist whom George prevents from accidently poisoning a child’s prescription, and especially Marry Hatch (Jean Gale). We then shift to a more grown-up George, who is preparing to leave the town behind and see the world, a dream he had since he was a kid. His father (Samuel S. Hinds) is hopeful that George will take over his savings and loan business, but is supportive of his son’s goals. One evening while out celebrating Harry’s (Todd Karns) graduation from high school, George is reunited once more with Mary (Donna Reed). There is clearly an attraction there, but he is focused on going overseas and seeing the world. These plans are derailed, though, when Mr. Bailey dies suddenly of a stroke. The one person in Bedford Falls not enamored of George Bailey is Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). He is on the board of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, and this small business is practically the one thing in town he does not own. He also hopes that obstacle will be removed with Mr. Bailey’s untimely demise. However, the rest of the board votes against dissolution if George takes over, which he agrees to do, thus forgoing his world tour. Soon after settling into this new role, he marries Mary, and begins a family in a grand old house in town in which she had always dreamed of living. Life in Bedford Falls settles in for the Bailey family, and they even begin a new housing development to rival Potter’s holdings and further cement the deeply respected position George holds in the community. He also saves everyone’s finances when the Great Depression begins. One day, as George’s employee and uncle, Billy (Thomas Mitchell), is depositing $8,000 in Potter’s bank, he misplaces said money, which Potter finds. Of course, Potter does not reveal this to George, and the situation is made worse by the fact that examiners are on hand to look over George’s records. The missing money will be construed George misappropriating funds, and he could face jail time. He is distraught with this possibility when he goes home, and finds no comfort with his family. After drinking in a bar, he walks out to a bridge intending to jump in the icy waters below and commit suicide. Instead, he sees somebody else in the water and jumps in to save this person. It turns out to be Clarence. As they dry off in a nearby structure attached to the bridge, Clarence continues to insist to an incredulous George that he is his guardian angel. In order to prove his angelic status, Clarence grants George his wish that he had never been born, but at the same time allows him to see what Bedford Falls, now Pottersville, would be like without George. As he makes his way through a town that is at once familiar and unrecognizable, he sees the city of vice and immorality it had become without him. The worst, though, is when Mary does not know who he is when they meet. George begs Clarence to change everything back, which the angel does. Renewed, he makes his way home and asks forgiveness from his family for his behavior earlier that evening. The crowning achievement comes when most of the town comes to his home, donating all the money he needs to make up for what he lost. It reminds him that he really has had a wonderful life.
There are fewer more true titles than It’s a Wonderful Life. I will try not to make this into a treatise on how you should thank God for the life you have, no matter your current state, even though that sentiment is accurate. The Bible is clear on the fact that there is no greater gift than simply being alive. Faith also does not tell you that life is going to be smooth sailing throughout our existence on this earth. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” The path to greatness, as demonstrated by today’s movie, is not always an easy one. Nor does our life always turn out exactly the way we intend. There is another Christian saying about how we plan, and God laughs. This is not to suggest that plans are bad. It is good to have at least an outline as to how you want your days, months, and years to proceed. If they align for God’s will for your life, so much the better. It is those that rage against things not working out according to their plotting that seem to have the most trouble. This relates to the climactic moment in the film. George, already having given up his desire to travel around the world, even putting aside his honeymoon to save the town, let bitterness overtake him as he stood on that bridge contemplating ending it all. Thankfully, though he did not recognize it as such at the time, God intervened. As a Catholic reviewer, this is the larger point I take away from the film. Yes, its overall message is that life is always worth it, and for a pro-lifer, that is great. Still, I will stop short of the obvious tie-in to abortion. Instead, it speaks to the way that God is continually trying to reach out to us to keep us on a path to Him, which is one of His greatest desires. Our guardian angels are an excellent tool, and who knows? I am sure there are some of you who can think of a time in your life when somebody intervened at a critical moment, and was never heard from again. That could very well have been your own Clarence. At any rate, it is one way God speaks to us out of many.
I have yet to mention that It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas movie. That was the time of year during which I first saw it. The last half of the film takes place near that day. Us Catholics spend a month preparing for that Holy Day, and we celebrate for weeks after it. As we approach the day, we are meant to prepare for it interiorly as it is an opportunity to once more welcome God into our hearts. Watching movies like this one can help with that process. It took a little bit of convincing for George to recognize Clarence as his guardian angel, but doing so is a type of acceptance of God’s intervention in our lives. None of this would be possible without God first sending Jesus into the world, and that is why we celebrate Christmas.