Ask Dad, He Knows: It’s A Wonderful Life’s Legacy Of Failure and Fatherhood

image: RKO Radio Pictures/YouTube

The pertinent question isn’t “Does It’s A Wonderful Life make you cry?” but rather “Which part of It’s A Wonderful Life makes you cry?” 

You’ll likely find yourself verklempt at different moments as you age. Of course there’s the famous climax, that pure emotional catharsis before the singalong of “Auld Lang Syne.” If you’re newly in love—or worse, newly out of it—young Mary Hatch whispering “George Bailey, I’ll love you until the day I die” into George’s deaf ear might crack you, and if that doesn’t do it, the honeymoon scene in the leaky old house probably will. My wife always loses it when the pharmacist, poor Mr. Gower, having recently learned of the death of his son, realizes he was drunkenly abusing young George when the boy was only trying to save him from making a deadly mistake. 

The moment that always destroys me, though, isn’t an obvious tearjerker. It’s another early scene, when a pre-teen George barges into his father’s building and loan office while the villainous slumlord Mr. Potter is ridiculing Peter Bailey as a failure because he won’t put the squeeze on poor families struggling to pay rent. An infuriated George leaps at the old bastard, shouting, “He’s not a failure! You can’t say that about my father!” George is even more aghast when his father tries to calm him down. “You’re not! You’re the biggest man in town! Bigger than him! Bigger than everybody!”

That scene has always wrecked me because my own father was also a soft-spoken man who espoused kindness and charity as the greatest virtues. Like Peter Bailey, he was a bit of a chump as a capitalist, a begrudging participant in business, a disbeliever in the merits of wealth in a country that often values little else.

No doubt that scene will hit me extra hard this year. In late October, my father’s increasingly fragile health went into a spiral after a rough couple of years. He’d long since lost the ability to speak, and his memories were rapidly corroding. He was dying when I started writing this, and dead before I finished, about a month before Christmas.

It’s A Wonderful Life is rich in the purest sense of the word because it is so many things: a romantic drama, a capitalist critique, an existential crisis, a chronicle of 20th century American history. But more than anything else, it’s one of the all-time great Dad movies. It’s about a son struggling to live up to high standards—not measured in dollars or awards or plaudits, but a moral legacy in a world whose abject cruelty had so recently been made terribly clear. It’s a movie about the absence of your father.

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Thanks to a now-notorious clerical error in 1974, It’s A Wonderful Life became one of the most-viewed movies in American history. The studio’s failure to renew the copyright turned it into a Hollywood staple for decades’ worth of Decembers, when any local affiliate could program it into an empty three-hour time slot for free. Yet, counterintuitively, by becoming one of the most-watched movies, it also became one of the least-seen. Ubiquity became its defining feature. Through its omnipresence via decades of holiday-season channel surfing, the film was reduced to a series of snippets and famous phrases, subsumed into the cultural shorthand—“Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” “No man is a failure who has friends.” “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” It joined the ranks of holiday ephemera, like the lyrics to “Oh Christmas Tree,” that people are certain they know until they actually try to remember them in detail.

Ironically for a movie largely concerned with the ethics of private ownership and corporate consolidation, perhaps the second-best thing to ever happen to It’s A Wonderful Life was the reinstatement of its copyright in the 1990s. NBC purchased the television rights and created a campaign of scarcity by promoting annual screenings as a TV event, turning communal property into a commodity once more. To paraphrase Ernie the cab driver, that’s got all the looks of a run on the memory bank. Better get down to the Bailey Building and Loan before they run out.

Thus, It’s A Wonderful Life settled into a comfortable new phase in its long cultural life cycle: From a mostly forgotten Best Picture nominee that lost money at the box office and sidelined director Frank Capra, to the background noise of your family holiday gathering, to a reappraisal as one of the great films of the Golden Age Hollywood.

Now it serves as a kind of Rorschach test. The optimist might focus on the hopeful ending. The pessimist can find a balm in its deeply sympathetic portrait of despair. The conservative is warmed by its celebration of small-town values. The socialist revels in the acid-scorched denouncement of commodification. For me, what’s most impactful is the strange gravity created by its empty center, the missing piece that continues to shape what remains.

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“Ask Dad, He Knows!”

Early in the film, Capra’s camera zooms in on this very literal sign—a Sweet Caporal cigarette ad—hanging in a small-town drugstore. That might as well be young George’s credo. George idolizes his father, played with tremendous humility by Samuel S. Hinds, and rightly so. As the citizens of Bedford Falls will learn again and again, Peter Bailey is the only man preventing their charming hamlet from being drained dry by a brand of vampire capitalism perfectly embodied by Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter. Pa Bailey earns less so that others can have more, and works hard so that others’ hard work can be rewarded.

Peter Bailey’s virtue isn’t the kind that calls attention to itself, a stark contrast to Potter’s grandiosity. Capra highlights this generosity with a subtle bit of staging that demonstrates how much space Peter takes up and how much he leaves for others. During the family dinner before brother Harry’s high school graduation party, a beleaguered Peter sits, head down and shoulders slightly bowed, as he eats his supper. He’s at the head of the table, but Capra blocks the scene so that he’s pushed off to the side of the frame. He’s not a king of a castle, holding court or making grand declarations, he’s just a tired businessman trying to dispense a little wisdom to his boys while he eats his greens. Peter’s humble seat at the end of the table is the antithesis of Potter’s ornate wheelchair, or the elevated desk Potter sits behind to literally look down upon his rivals.

Peter’s sudden off-screen death is ultimately what keeps George in Bedford Falls, consigning him to the hard-scrabble small-town life he doesn’t think is so wonderful at all. But Peter’s passing is far more than a plot device. Yes, it sets George (and the entire movie) on its path, but moreover, it’s his absence that leaves George lost in the dark. George Bailey ranks among Hollywood’s moral paragons, yet he isn’t the moral compass of It’s A Wonderful Life, he’s the fulcrum. Peter is the North Star by which George steers, and without that fatherly wisdom, the son is adrift. Peter would know how to help Violet Bick without causing a scandal. Peter would know how to handle the financial crisis of the Depression. Peter would know enough not to trust his dunderheaded brother Billy with the bank deposit. George is isolated in part because he’s forced to be the head of the family. He can no longer ask Dad, who knows.

That’s where Clarence Odbody, Angel, Second Class, comes in. The eccentric little man, beautifully played by Henry Travers, is a replacement father figure, and a flawed one at that. The guidance Clarence tries to provide is a stand-in for the fatherly advice George so desperately needs. The trouble, of course, is that Clarence is a bit of a doofus, having been an angel for well over a century without earning his wings. He’s still far more helpful than Uncle Billy, though, who might as well have been designed in a lab to be useless. 

Brief confession: I can’t stand Uncle Billy. Not the great actor Thomas Mitchell, so wonderful in Stagecoach (1939) and High Noon (1952) and especially as the ethically murderous professor in Flight From Destiny (1941), but Billy’s wet-brained, bird-bothering ineptitude easily ranks as the second-most insidious force in Bedford Falls. 

Billy’s maddening obliviousness is essential, though. He’s doubtless the first person Potter would fire, and thus a kind of trial of Job for George, who inherited him as a co-worker from Peter. Just like Clarence’s sweet-natured cluelessness, Billy’s bungling provides George the opportunity to achieve the monumental task he’s undertaken since that fateful night his moonlight walk with Mary Hatch was so tragically interrupted: to live up to his father’s example.

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When I was young, probably not much older than Harry Bailey when he fell through the ice, my Dad told me a story about his days working on the railroad in the 1970s. He noticed that one of his co-workers, Tham Van Vu, always ate his lunch alone. The other guys on the crew didn’t have any interest in hanging out with him. My dad made it a point to start sitting with Tham on their noontime breaks, and they become buddies, swapping jokes and sometimes items from their lunchpails. 

The point of the story seemed obvious, even to a little kid. But I was also frustrated. What was wrong with those other guys who were unfriendly to Tham Van Vu, why did they have to act like jerks?

My Dad explained to me that most of the other guys on the crew had served in Vietnam. Dad was eligible and waited in suspense as the lottery numbers were drawn for the draft. He lucked out, got a favorable number, was never conscripted into war, purely on the caprice of some bouncing balls. Other guys on the crew weren’t so fortunate. He said he would have gone if he was called, but he was relieved he didn’t have to go, and that he knew he could never understand what those who had served had been through, not any more than he could understand Tham Van Vu’s life as a refugee trying to feed his family. You don’t need to make a big show of doing the right thing, nor should you indulge in judging other people. But what you can do is go sit with Tham Van Vu and be his friend.

That’s some Peter Bailey stuff right there. That’s the standard you try to meet, even though you know you’ll often fail.

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Of course, Peter Bailey isn’t perfect either. When schoolboy George comes to him with a dilemma about Mr. Gower accidentally putting the wrong medicine in some pills, Peter is so busy battling with Potter that he dismisses his son. George ultimately still does the right thing because he knows what Pa Bailey would do, even if the old man couldn’t say the words himself. 

Later in the film, George will falter at fatherhood as well. Some of the movie’s most harrowing moments come during the breakdown when he berates his oldest son and daughter before trashing the living room in front of his whole, terrified family. It’s his nadir, the final act that causes him to consider throwing himself from the bridge into the frigid river – and to pass the same burden along to his own children. 

It’s A Wonderful Life was a disappointment once, too, costing a studio its existence and a great director his career. Only with time did it find its audience, and, to misquote a recently promoted Angel, First Class, no film is a failure that has an audience. More than 75 years after its release, the film has not only been redeemed several times in the fickle cultural consciousness, it still offers the possibility of personal redemption, however hard-earned.

I’ll watch it again this year, a few days before Christmas, just as I have for decades. No doubt Peter Bailey’s sudden passing will be even more keenly felt, and George’s despair deeper than ever. It’s a movie that defines life by who isn’t there, that uses aching absence to understand the value of what remains. It’s about the impossible task of trying to fill that empty space, and the nobility of trying anyway.

Clarence’s gift to George is the same gift Frank Capra—and cinema itself—gives to us all: an impossible glimpse into alternate realities, so that we might reconsider our own place in this one, humble reality we’ve got. That It’s A Wonderful Life itself nearly vanished into obscurity, creating an absence that’s difficult to imagine, only to reemerge in a triumphant and restorative celebration, is more than irony, it’s serendipity. 

The power of a film that becomes a holiday tradition isn’t limited to the compelling lure of nostalgia that allows you to return to an earlier time when you shared it with someone who is now gone. It’s that, when you press play, they are, if only for a couple of hours, impossibly returned.