Most of us think of Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life as a schmaltzy Christmas movie, that old black-and-white classic that TV stations use to fill time during the winter holidays. With our nation’s renewed awareness of chronic depression and suicide in the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic end, I’ve been seeing a lot of people on Facebook and other places sharing snippets of the suicide narratives from either their own, or a family member’s, dances with suicidal depression.
That got me thinking about suicide narratives in film and television. A suicide narrative is the story that a depressed person tells him- or herself to justify the act. A common, basic narrative is something like, “they’ll be better off without me”. Unfortunately, in fiction, suicide narratives tend to be reduced to melodramatic caricatures- witness the suicides in Romeo & Juliet, for instance.
Yesterday, I posted a short graphic that showed, very quickly, how It’s a Wonderful Life serves as a believable suicide narrative- when we watch it from George’s point of view. My contention is that Frank Capra constructed the film in a way that depicts a chronically depressed character who does not look depressed. George Bailey is happily married, a respected pillar of the community, and a beloved father.
In his own eyes though, George is a failure. Worse, George does not believe that he deserves success or happiness. When good things happen, it’s a fluke, a quirk- someone must’ve made a mistake. Because George does not see himself as valuable or worthy.
Of course, the point of the film is that despite his depression and low self-esteem, George is far more important and valuable than he realizes. That doesn’t change the fact that the film can also help us to understand the insidious nature of chronic depression. It’s a Wonderful Life is not only a tool for teaching us about our own value, but for helping us to develop a compassionate understanding for those who struggle with this very difficult and horrific disease.
The film opens with a number of voices appealing to a deity (either Jesus or Yah, the God of Abraham) to help a man named George Bailey who is experiencing some kind of trouble. An angel, Clarence Odbody, is summoned to be the deity’s intercessory agent. The first part of the film is a retrospective, nominally to “read in” Clarence; but of course, it’s really there to introduce us to George Bailey.
We first see George as a boy, sledding with friends. George taunts his brother Harry into sledding down the hill, calling him a “scare-baby”. When Harry falls through the ice, George rescues him, but gets an infection that renders him deaf in his left ear.
From our perspective as an audience, the partial deafness is a battle-scar, a mark of George’s heroism. What about from George’s perspective? He bullied Harry into sledding down the hill. He was the elder, he was responsible. From George’s point of view, losing the hearing in his ear was likely punishment for his pettiness in hectoring Harry and his failure to keep Harry safe.
It’s easy for us a modern audience to dismiss the idea that George’s hearing loss was some form of divine retribution; but, it’s important to remember that George is living in a time and place where this was not an uncommon idea. Furthermore, as an audience, we KNOW that an intercessory divinity has taken direct interest in George’s life. We are led to believe that the ear infection was purely accidental. However, given that the deity in question has demonstrated the ability and willingness to involve Himself in human affairs, is it unreasonable of George to feel like the ear infection was stigmatic?
We next see George working for Mr. Gower, a pharmacist. George is twelve at the time, and it is implied that he has worked for Mr. Gower for some time already. Bear in mind that in 1919, child labor was fairly common, and working for a druggist might have been viewed as apprenticing for a promising career. Unfortunately, Mr. Gower is not simply a kindly old man, but we’ll come back to that.
When George enters the drug store, he stops and wishes for a million dollars, already believing that his financial success is not in his own power. We see this again later when George is a young man about to go out and see the world.
Indeed, this theme of travel is central to George’s idea of a good life. During the first conversation we see with his future wife, Mary, George lays out his plans for travelling the world. The idea that he is going to be an explorer, a world traveler, is central to George’s self-narrative. This is a repeated frustration throughout George’s life- every time he thinks that he is about to go exploring, life gets in the way.
Back to Mr. Gower, now. When we first see Mr. Gower, he is drunk. A telegram informs us that his son Robert recently died of influenza while attending Hammerton College. This was probably part of the “Spanish Influenza” outbreak that occurred near the end of World War I. George knows Mr. Gower is in pain and tries to help, but does not comment on the man’s obvious inebriation, suggesting that this is not unprecedented. We also see no indications or pictures of a Mrs. Gower, suggesting that “Old Man” Gower is a widower or divorcée.
George realizes that the pills he’s been asked to deliver contain poison and tries, very skittishly, to engage Mr. Gower in conversation around the contents. When Gower acts even slightly annoyed, George cowers and flees, implying that he is not simply respectful of and subordinate to his employer- he is deathly afraid of him.
When George tries to ask his father for advice on how to handle the situation, he finds out that his father is in financial distress and that some people consider him a “failure”. So begins George’s hatred of (and competition with) Mr. Potter. This incident further reinforces George’s financial insecurity while at the same time not relieving his worry about Mr. Gower’s poison pills.
When George returns to the pharmacy, Gower is on the phone with the family that ordered the pills. Again, it is telling that despite the fact that Gower is so drunk as to be nearly unintelligible, no one calls attention to his inebriation- not the other person on the phone, nor Mary in the other room, nor George.
When George, too frightened of Mr. Gower to explain why he didn’t deliver the pills, presents himself, we find out what George is dreading. Mr. Gower begins beating him about the head, including in his infected ear, which is apparently still sore. His ear even begins bleeding again, leading us to wonder if the infection took George’s hearing… or Mr. Gower. In the other room, Mary winces, but says nothing. While traumatic, it is apparently “normal”. Like his drinking, Gower’s abuse is not unprecedented.
When George finally explains himself and tells Gower that he “put something bad in those capsules”, the old man comes to his senses and tries to hug George. Yet, George backs away, clearly terrified. George swears that he will never tell anyone- a classic behavior amongst abuse victims who blame themselves for their abuse.
When next we see George, he is a young man, about to embark on a “cattle boat” cruise- a rough, but very practical way of seeing the world as he wishes to do. We find out that Mr. Gower purchased a travel bag for George, presumably in thanks. We see Gower, now sober and surrounded by happy children, suggesting that after the poison incident he got his life back on track.
Later that night, eating with his father, George is clearly pained by the thought of staying in Bedford Falls. He’s been working at the family’s Building & Loan to save up money for college. He wants to “build things”. He can’t fathom being “cooped up in a shabby little office”. He wants to “do something big, something important”, not “figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe.”
Certainly, we are given a counter perspective. We are told that what the Building & Loan does is vitally important- that without them most of the honest folk in Bedford Falls would not have decent homes. This is true, and on a good day, George can be happy about this. But this article is not about George’s good days.
We find out that while the Baileys are well-loved, they are not well-off. George’s friends have all finished college already and he hasn’t even been able to afford to start. Now his father wants to send Harry off to college and have George stay behind and manage the business. In the end, his father gives George his blessing after admitting that “this town is no place for any man unless he’s willing to crawl to Potter”.
George then heads off to his brother Harry’s graduation party. There, they meet Sam Wainwright, one of George’s friends who has recently returned from college. But Sam doesn’t really want to talk to George- he wants to recruit Harry for the college team. “We need great ends like you, not broken down old guys like this one”, pointing at George. While George is gracious, it is Harry’s party after all, it further reminds us how far behind the times George feels.
Soon after, though, Mr. Partridge the principal arrives to explain that George had been involved in the design of the gymnasium by suggesting the addition of a pool under the floor. At first, this is heralded as an important money-saving idea. However…
A short time later, George and Mary get involved in a Charleston dancing contest. They appear to be winning the dance-off until jealous suitors open up the floor and cause the two of them to fall into the pool!
George’s only significant triumph in his chosen field has just been used to humiliate him in front of the whole town, thus corrupting it and leaving it unavailable as a source of self-validation.
Later that night, though, things are looking up. He’s walking Mary home and it looks like some romance is brewing. Just then, George finds out that his father has had a stroke. Once again, life demands that he pay attention to someone else at a time that he himself needs reassurance and comfort.
We find out in the next scene that his father died and George gave up his planned summer of exploration to keep the Building & Loan running. He’s about to head off to college when he’s forced to assume control of the little bank or risk losing it to Potter. This is not simply spite or loyalty to his father- the Building & Loan is George’s only identity at this point. He’s already sacrificed, willingly or not, every dream thus far for the sake of this institution. Letting Potter win at this point invalidates all of that sacrifice. It invalidates George.
So, George gives his college money to Harry, who becomes a football star. Harry is due to return from college so he can take over the Building & Loan. Now twenty-five, George once again has his brochures ready- travel plans, dreams. But Harry arrives with a wife and the promising job offer in the big city. In Harry’s defense, he plans on keeping his promise to George, but George is already chronically depressed and possibly codependent. He insists that Harry take the job even though it means giving up on himself.
It’s important to note, again, that I am writing this from the perspective of George’s depression. There are plenty of happy moments in this film. But George’s attempt at suicide later on is not based on that, more balanced narrative. It is based on THIS narrative- the suicide narrative.
Later, at the wedding party, George once again throws away his travel brochures. His mother tells him that Mary has returned from college. Apparently everyone goes to college except George Bailey. His mom tells him to call on Mary, but George is trying to stand aside for Sam Wainwright, his college-educated friend with the promising financial future. Again, George views himself as the least worthy person.
Instead of visiting Mary, he heads into town looking for Violet- widely viewed as the prettiest girl in town. Violet, like George, has been keeping her options open. She seems to want adventure and freedom, so she and George seem like a good match. Her somewhat scandalous reputation also makes her a more fitting partner for George’s tarnished self-image. It’s also been established that she’s had her eye on George for about as long as Mary has, so George figures he’s got a shot. Unfortunately, her brand of adventure isn’t George’s, and he winds up being humiliated in the center of town.
When George finally does go to visit Mary, he does so as if she is a consolation prize. In Violet he thought he’d found a kindred spirit- instead he got burned. Mary, on the other hand, appears relatively quiet, demure, staid. We find out that virtually all of the younger generation have moved away. Mary, on the other hand, was homesick and came back. She wants to stay in the town that George never got to leave.
Drowning in his own self-loathing, George cannot see (what we see) that Mary is clearly the healthier alternative- someone stable and caring to ground him. Instead he is rude and avoidant, viewing her as an anchor- the personification of his persistent inability to leave Bedford Falls. Mary cleverly uses Sam Wainwright’s telephone call to leverage George’s must-please attitude to keep him from leaving.
During the call, we find out that Sam and his father are using information that George gave them to go into the plastics business and get rich. George tells them they can do it cheaper by buying the old tool factory that closed down. Sam offers George a job if he leaves the Building & Loan- a further reminder of how the central fact of George’s identity is a prison. He then grabs Mary and declares that:
“I don’t want any plastics and I don’t want any ground floors. And I don’t want to get married, ever, to anyone! You understand that? I wanna do what I wanna do!” He then embraces her, realizing that he does indeed love her. But the price of that love is a further reduction in his chances to realize his dreams.
It’s even raining on their wedding day.
As they depart from the reception, ready to leave on their honeymoon, they’ve managed to squirrel away two thousand dollars (a healthy sum). George is finally going to get to travel, and Mary will be by his side. Everything was going just great, until…
There’s a run on the bank. Stupid New York and it’s big city shenanigans ruining people’s lives in Bedford Falls…
In order to save the Building & Loan, which you’ll recall is the foundation of George’s identity at this point, they have to use their honeymoon savings to tide over the customers until the bank reopens. Lest we place the blame too heavily on George here, remember that this part of his identity has been under almost constant attack by Potter. Without the old man’s antagonism, George might have been gracefully able to distance himself. It is Potter’s frequent attempts to deprive George of his one source of self-validation that continually force him to reinvest, each time at higher stakes.
Meanwhile, Mary has been fulfilling her dream of buying and living in the old, rundown house at 320 Sycamore. George walks to the “Waldorf Hotel” to find that Bert & Ernie have helped Mary to prepare an ersatz honeymoon using travel posters. George embraces Mary and tells her how wonderful she is. He hides his face, but his voice belies a great sadness. He’s clearly happy to be with Mary and knows how much effort his friends went through, but the posters are just another reminder that instead of seeing the world and building beautiful highrises… George is stuck in Bedford Falls and will be fixing up a broken-down shack to live in.
The next scene shows us how George channels this frustration into positive social good. We see an Italian immigrant family moving into Bailey Park, an affordable housing development that George designed and funded through the Building & Loan. Once again, it looks like George is finally going to get to enjoy some success. For once, something that George did in his chosen field is totally good. Then Sam shows up and unwittingly reminds George what a loser he is…
Mr. Potter, realizing that George Bailey is actually a much sharper businessman (and more threatening foe) than his father, invites him in to offer him a job. Potter then lays out, in very harsh terms, how poorly George is doing compared to how well he could be doing. He offers George about ten times his current salary, and George questions whether Potter meant to offer the job to someone else. This reinforces for the audience how little George believes in himself. It’s not humility, it’s depression.
Is Potter being a slimy scumbag here? Absolutely. It is his lack of empathy that leads him to make one fatal error. He tells George to forget about the Building & Loan. The Building & Loan that has been George’s penance for a decade or more. The Building & Loan for which he gave up college, his dreams of travel, his hope to become a great architect. The Building & Loan, that though it’s keeping him poor, gave him the chance to do the one (in his mind) important thing he has ever done- Bailey Park. To accept the job is to accept the death of his self-image- and his fragile ego can’t take that. He’s sacrificed too much.
He turns down the job… and almost immediately realizes that he’s going to need the money because Mary is pregnant. We are told that George never leaves Bedford Falls. Every day, he comes home to a ramshackle house that Mary is desperately trying to repair. Every day, he’s reminded what his weakness in Potter’s office has cost him and his family. This stair knob taunts him with his failure, with his selfishness and hubris.
When World War II breaks out, George is unable to enlist on account of his deaf ear. Instead of being able to win the Medal of Honor like his brother Harry, George has to stay at home, while once again his friends go off and have adventures. We see him volunteering for all sorts of important tasks, most of which involve arguing with people. Instead of saving the world, instead of making people happy, instead of making himself happy… George has to sneak around in the darkness and blow whistles at people for leaving their lights on.
We next see George handing out papers celebrating his brother’s triumphant return as a war hero. Today, George might finally be free of his penance for endangering Harry all those years back. “See, I toughened him up,” George might be saying to himself. “It was worth it to send him to college instead of me, he couldn’t have been a pilot unless he’d gone to college.” Maybe now, today, things can start to break George’s way. Maybe he’s finally done enough to earn forgiveness.
But George doesn’t get lucky breaks. Mr. Carter, the bank examiner is in today to look over the books, and George’s uncle misplaces eight thousand dollars- enough money to render the entire institution insolvent. Meanwhile, George gives Violet a loan to move to New York- helping her to fulfill her dreams, even though he can’t live out his own. He’s feeling pretty good today, everyone deserves a second chance, right?
By losing the money, his uncle jeopardizes George’s fragile self-identity just as it was starting to heal. George lapses into the coping mechanisms he learned from Mr. Gower as a boy: violence and drinking. He manhandles his elderly uncle, deriding him as a worthless “old fool”.
Storming out of his uncle’s house, he returns home and begins acting out the abuse he’s learned on the symbols of his entrapment- his wife and children. He realizes this, and horrified that he really is the monster he always knew himself to be- flees into the night to try and salvage what he can.
In desperation, he turns to his old enemy- Henry Potter. George is willing to accept defeat, he knows that he is worthless, he knows that the Building & Loan can’t change that. He is willing to accept Potter’s dominion if his rival will simply let him keep his family. Instead Potter taunts him, tossing out possible scandals, reminding George that he hasn’t even seen the worst that could come of this. He even points out that George is worth more dead than alive.
Of course, most people see this as the cause of George’s attempted suicide. It’s not. It’s the trigger. As I hope I’ve demonstrated, George had ample reason to think himself cursed, broken, punished, unworthy, and downright bad. As the audience, we have the benefit of knowing that he’s a good person who’s had some tough breaks. But George can’t see that. George, like real persons in his situation, cannot see himself objectively:
“If it hadn’t been for me, everybody’d be a lot better off…”
Of course, in this film, George gets saved by a guardian angel- Clarence Odbody. We get to see George recognize his importance to the world, to others. Most people don’t get that chance. Most people don’t know, will never know.
For a person with chronic depression, someone whose brain is wired to anticipate worse each new day than the day before- that not knowing can be deadly. They cannot see an end to the pain. They cannot see any reason to endure it, even as a form of martyrdom- because they can see no grand design, no greater good. They need a Clarence too.
Maybe, in some ways, It’s A Wonderful Life has created a bit of a Frankenstein’s Monster. How many people stand on the precipice simply to test whether Clarence will show up for them? In a sad, sick way, the fact that no one does come to save them affirms their suicide narratives- they now have evidence that they really are worthless.
Often though, other people do see them and could have intervened. Frequently, bystanders report suspecting that a suicide was impending, they just didn’t want to get involved- or didn’t know how. Next time, that bystander could be you.
Will you be their Clarence… or their Potter? Will you try to live each day in recognition that each interaction you have with someone could be the last one they will ever have?