My wife and I have had a problem the last couple years with It’s a Wonderful Life. We’ve been watching it as a Christmas tradition. We do love the movie – it’s just great – but what keeps bothering us about the story is that Mr. Potter does a pretty heinous thing, for which he receives no justice, in what we see of the story anyway.
Here’s what happens if you recall: Mr. Potter wants to take control of the Building and Loan, run by George Bailey. Potter tries everything, even hiring George with the promise of much higher pay, to acquire George’s family business and control over the banking and real estate of the town of Bedford Falls. Having tried everything else, Potter swipes an envelope of cash meant to be deposited by the building and loan, putting George and his company at great risk, and starting the tragic trajectory of events the movie is famous for. George tries to find the money to no avail, which leads him to lash out uncharacteristically in anger at his family that night, and leads him out to the bridge in the snowstorm where he’s saved from suicide by Clarence the angel, and is given a chance to see what his life and everyone in it would be like without George Bailey. And on and on it goes, but the seemingly terrible thing about it if your paying attention, is that no justice ever befalls Mr. Potter for his terrible crime against George. George hurts his family, and almost kills himself over this whole mess, which is all Potter’s fault. And no admission, no repentance, no final reckoning in the story for him at all.
But I say “if you’re paying attention” for a reason. By the end, when George is given his life back, and he’s realized how good he has it with such friends and family, we’ve all but forgotten about Potter and what he did to George. Potter’s crime becomes overshadowed by the grace and love that come to George in the end.
Here’s what’s so cool about this film. In spite of the weird theology, or what I guess is really angelology, there’s a deep sense of the triumph of true goodness and love over any wrongs ever done to us in this life. The goodness at the end of the story, and the profound, self-forgetful love shown to George matters far more than the injustice done against him. But old Mr. Potter recedes down and away into his self-made loneliness and misery, a recession that’s mirrored in the last scene of Potter in the film. In that scene we see Potter peering miserably out of his window at George searching the snowy street for the lost money, trying to right the wrong he didn’t even commit. Contrast this with how George’s burdens are borne upward by the love and kindness of his friends. In kind of a Pauline sense, death is swallowed up in victory; miserable avarice is swallowed up in great joyousness.
There’s not much of Christ in this story, but we feel some deeply Christian things here even so.