My absolute favorite film – not just my favorite Christmas film – is It’s a beautiful life. Much ink was spilled on this film, sometimes revered as a cinematic masterpiece, sometimes as sentimental bullshit (to quote the film’s villainous Mr. Potter). But for me it’s a poignant and surprisingly dark exploration of life’s challenges and blessings – and how these are intricately intertwined.
My viewing experience has changed dramatically as I’ve seen it in new stages of life. Each time, new truths and insights seem to reveal themselves—especially now that I’m a parent dealing with the daily joys, frustrations, and sacrifices that come with this calling.
The film follows George Bailey, a small-town everyday man with much bigger ambitions, whose dreams are thwarted at every turn by various circumstances. On a particularly stressful Christmas Eve, George contemplates suicide and is visited by his guardian angel, Clarence, who shows him what the world would be like if George had never been born and finally convinces him of the impact his frustratingly ordinary life has left behind .
I had seen snippets of this film at various Christmas times growing up, but I didn’t sit down to see it until high school. It wasn’t until college that I really embraced it. It became ambitious for the life I eventually wanted for myself. As the film opens, George is full of promise and panache. He falls in love with Mary Hatch and dreams of exotic travel and a career doing something “important” like building tall buildings and planning cities.
Personally, I was more interested in the “normal” life that Mary craves and George ends up having. I wanted to find my real Mary and settle into a humble home. We would build our lives together and start a family. We would raise our children and I would grow in my career, counting my blessings and appreciating everyone in my life. Who needs Clarence?
As it turned out, it took me more years than I expected to finally find my own Mary, and I was often bitter during that time of waiting to fulfill my calling. My yearly viewings of the film almost felt like they were mocking me. Why is George so upset? He has exactly what I want! when would i come my wonderful Life?
However, one fine December, I went to see the film at a friend’s house. Another guest was a woman I had met months before. A mutual interest grew between us and I think I saw her more than the film that night. Would she like it? Would she laugh at the right moments?
The next December she gave me a “You’re in Bedford Falls Now” sign that would eventually hang in the living room of our house together. I had found my Mary – her name is Theresa – and I certainly wouldn’t take anything for granted anymore. My wonderful life finally came together!
At various points in the film, George certainly feels the same way. But George and Mary’s romance and life plans are constantly interrupted by circumstances beyond their control. The night they fall in love, George is swept away by the news of his father’s fatal stroke. Years later, their “newly married” bliss is immediately interrupted by a Depression-era run on the bank.
Theresa and I had our own run-on-the-bank moment early in our marriage when I found a cancerous lump in my throat on our honeymoon. Our first year of marriage was filled with doctor appointments, chemotherapy sessions, and CT scans. This obviously wasn’t the newlywed life we envisioned, but we weathered that storm with a Bailey-like commitment to one another.
An appealing, re-watchable aspect of the film is its episodic nature. We get scenes from George’s childhood, young adult years, early family days and the climax of the heavenly mumbo-jumbo with Clarence on Christmas Eve. These episodes often show George at his lowest point – acting frustrated, jealous, sad, or cruel. But we only see brief vignettes of his life, and to dismiss him as a hateful Grinch would be to miss the point of the film and its broader application to our lives. It’s a wonderful life, all right. But life is full of opportunities, choices, setbacks and triumphs.
Nowhere is this more common than in the field of parenting. The Bailey family’s chaotic home church is visible in full throughout the film. George and I both have four young children, and there is an air of familiarity about the Bailey home. In just a few short scenes It’s a beautiful life depicts the parental rock bottom of overreacting to your child’s troublesome tendencies with unnecessary anger, as well as a child’s illness that George temporarily pulls out of himself, his anger, and his troubles in tenderly comforting his ailing daughter Zuzu at her bedside.
The film addresses the fundamental challenge of parenthood: how to balance the upbringing and joy of your children with the responsibilities of everyday life and the need to take care of your own needs without completely losing yourself. Sometimes your greatest blessings feel like your greatest problems. At one point, George snaps at Mary, “You call that a happy family? Why do we have to have all these children?”
This line is a famous inside joke in our house. When Theresa and I started a family, we didn’t intend to have four children in five years. Given that my doctor said chemotherapy would likely render me infertile, this is a miracle from God and an answer to our prayers. But when I’m changing the ninth diaper of the day while two other children howl in the background, I sometimes find myself asking George’s question sincerely, and it’s remarkably easy to stare the gift horse of my wonderful life in the mouth.
I inevitably find Zuzu’s petals in my bag – a quiet moment of fun with my oldest daughter, a tender hug from my 2-year-old, or the joyful sight of three children running out of the garage to greet me when I come home come from work. This is the life I wanted, the life I was called to, and the life I love.
It’s a beautiful life is a two-hour exploration of the art of dying to yourself – and an annual reminder of the fruits that come from that choice. The film conveys the timeless message of the Savior whose birth we celebrate during this sacred time: Your life is a gift meant to be shared in the service of others.
This article also appears in the December 2022 issue of US Catholics (Vol. 87, No. 12, pages 26-30). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Shutterstock/Tero Vesalainen