I probably don’t have to go over the excellence that is Frank Capra’s film, It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a movie some people love, others dislike and others still just can’t stand. Personally I love the movie and I don’t get why some people hate it. It’s certainly not syrupy sweet, though the end wraps up nicely. Perhaps it hits a little to close to home for some people.
The rule in my house is: We don’t watch Christmas movies until December 1st and we don’t watch Christmas movies after December 31st. That being said, the wife and I sat down to enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life last night, as this year this were all askew and we didn’t get to watch it before Christmas. As usual I couldn’t help but notice the excellent acting by Jimmy Stewart who plays a man (George Bailey) irritated with his situation but who loves those around him too much to just leave it behind – too many people are relying on him and he does much good for many, though he only wants to leave the town of Bedford Falls behind.
One person whom I typically admire but haven’t really paid much attention to, however, is Donna Reed’s character of Mary Bailey. Though she plays a large part in the story she certainly isn’t the focus and I think sometimes she gets forgotten. As I watched the movie last night (which, btw, has been fraught with many issues in it’s history, from losing its copyright to actually being a flop when it was released) I couldn’t help but notice what an incredible woman and wife Mary Bailey is.
Here we have a woman who falls for a man, hard. I don’t know what George Bailey does in his youth, but early in the movie we see that young Mary proclaims her love for her man almost right in his face, whispering in his bad ear that “…I will love you till the day I die.”. We never see what causes this dedication. Perhaps she was present when George saves his younger brother from drowning and this has cemented him in her mind as the man she wants to marry. Like I said, nothing is really said about WHY she loves him so, we just know that she does.
Later in the movie we find out that Mary has left Bedford Falls but is visiting when, at a graduation party for one of the high school classes, her brother comes up and asks George if he would dance with her. Here we get a great idea of just how hard she has fallen for him:
- Her brother tells George that if he would just dance with her would make her extremely happy (I forget the exact words he uses).
- George sees Mary from across the room and, when their eyes meet, he is visibly awed by her beauty, but she is visibly excited to see him.
- It appears as though Mary is there with another date, as the young man is telling her a story, but when George approaches her she completely ignores the guy, hands him her drink and leaves to dance with George.
After a quick dip in the pool we get to a great scene where we learn that both Mary and George are not what I would call squeaky clean – they are obviously young people in love and want each other, physically. Nowhere near as overtly over-sexualized as modern film, the exchange is great as we come to find that George is a bit of a sly dog (the lines he mutters to himself while she hides in the bushes are GREAT) and Mary lets a little bit of innocent sexuality slip into the conversation as well (you know, before she gets naked – on accident, I know). Particularly after breaking a window in the old house. Though we learn later what she claims she wished for, her attitude at the moment certainly makes one wonder if her wish was purely carnal.
Later we find that she has again returned to Bedford Falls for a visit and we get to see her put a little ‘girl game’ in action. When George reluctantly comes over for a visit she takes a few steps to ensure that he will be reminded of their previous encounter, and even fakes enjoying a phone call from an old beau to make him jealous. She obviously wants him, despite the fact that he is frustrated about the lemons life has handed him once again (as if telling her mother that he is “making violent love to me” wasn’t enough of a give away). He obviously wants her as well, though he fights it and loses in the end.
Fast forward to George and Mary getting married and, while headed out of town, George has to save the building and loan from failure. Despite not wanting her now husband to get involved Mary is right there supporting him. When things look like they are about to take a turn for the worst she voluntarily gives up the money they had saved for their honeymoon to keep the building and loan open. Later that evening after George gets “home” he finds that his new wife, without complaint, has prepared a table, a meal and a bed (the look on his face when he double-takes the bed is hilarious) in the dilapidated old house that will be their home. This scene is fantastic! Knowing full well what George wants to do with his life, but that he has once again been stymied by circumstances, Mary has friends cover the windows of the house with large posters of far away, exotic locations. IMDB indicates that the posters are actually larger versions of the pictures in the travel brochures we see George carrying earlier in the film. She knows her man and she does what is within her power to cater to him. She cares for him and, knowing he has just been though a very rough day, has made sure he comes home to as great a home as she can give him at the moment. It’s very sweet and endearing, and we really get a great look at her character in this scene.
Fast forward again to George’s discovery of the missing 8000 dollars his uncle has misplaced and his subsequent panic. He arrives at home, harried, worried and frustrated, no doubt in fear that he is going to jail. Mary, unaware of what is going on, is happy while she helps the children decorate the Christmas tree, but quickly becomes aware that something isn’t right. George is angry and makes some very disparaging remarks about the house, about their children – now, a modern wife in a modern show would have quickly berated or torn down her husband in an attempt to “put him in his place”, but not Mary Bailey. Despite her husbands obvious barbs she remains calm and attempts to help him by getting him to relax and attempting to understand what he is going through. Only when he flies off the handle and starts yelling at his daughters school teacher over the phone and yelling at the children does she speak out against him, and even then only for a moment. She doesn’t grab the kids and proclaim “I’m going to my mothers!”, she doesn’t wait for him to leave then tell the kids to pack their things so they can leave him – she picks up the phone to call friends for help and tells her children to go and pray for their father. She doesn’t know why George is distressed, only that he is distressed and needs help.
The end of the movie see’s her bringing in all of George’s friends who are more than happy to bail him out of the situation he is in. It’s a great scene as we get to see the full bounty of the charity and love George and Mary have sown over the years come to fruition. Dozens of friends arrive to help George out by donating money to cover the lost 8000 dollars, and they do it without a hitch – its not even a thought to help out their friend! Now, we never know for sure, but though we see Mary as the instigator of the event I don’t feel that she went out looking for people to give up their money for her husband. Likely she went out looking for him after he left the house and, during her search, finds out what is going on with the money. Undeterred she continues to look for him, but word gets around and soon their friends have formed a convoy, of their own accord, and head to the Bailey house to do whatever they can.
Throughout the film the character of Mary Bailey is a fantastic example of a biblical wife. Some people might call her a doormat for not stepping up and challenging her husband when he comes home irritated and angry, but she certainly lives up to the biblical standard of her husbands submissive helpmate. The sorrowful thing is that ANY woman can live up to this standard if she wanted. Is it easy? Likely not, but it is not impossible. There is nothing wrong with her catering to her husbands wants and needs, she is not less of a woman for it, but, in fact, is a GREATER woman for it!
What do you think?