It’s a dark and snowy night. A sign declares, “You Are Now in Bedford Falls.” Not “Welcome to Bedford Falls.” Nothing about when the Rotary and the Oddfellows meet. Just the cold, stark, declarative, “You Are Now in Bedford Falls.” They might as well add, “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.”
A quick montage shows us that all the exterior shots are praying for George Bailey. We slowly push in on heaven. Suddenly, the Death Star hoves into view, and the camera dolly narrowly escapes its tractor beam.
We move toward a brilliant constellation which, if you connect all the stars, makes the figure of Bob’s Big Boy. God and his homeboy Joseph (represented by some annoying flashing lights) are discussing the situation. “Lot of people praying for a man named George Bailey,” God sighs.
“George Bailey?” Joseph murmurs. “Oh, right! Tonight’s his crucial night.” You know, you’d think they’d be a little more on top of who’s about to commit suicide, especially if they know about it in advance (Heaven clearly needs a database). Apparently, they were just going to let him die, until all those prayers started piling up. It’s a lot like those letter writing campaigns that finally convinced a reluctant ABC to release the first season of The Flying Nun on DVD. Anyway, the flashing lights that run the cosmos grudgingly agree to send someone down, and check the schedule to see who pulled the crappy Christmas Eve shift.
It’s Clarence Oddbody. “I.Q. of a rabbit,” we’re told, “But the faith of a child. Simple.” Well, they’re not exactly sending the A-Team, are they? And just out of curiosity, exactly how much faith does it really take to believe in God when you’re already in heaven? Nevertheless, they send for Clarence, which leads one to conclude that the Heavenly Host HATES George Bailey. Or that they regard suicide prevention as a Special Olympics event – you get your wings just for showing up.
But this was all just a setup for the world’s longest flashback, as Clarence is forced to review George’s life by watching America’s Painfully Quaintest Home Videos. Let’s start in 1919, where Spunky Young Lad George is hosting Bedford Fall’s annual Self-Castrating Toboggan Days by straddling a snow shovel and riding it down a hill and across a frozen pond. George’s smarter brother Harry is rightfully leery of these extreme sports, but George taunts him until Harry is forced to board the shovel, bump painfully down the hill, and crash through the ice.
George goes bobbing for brothers, and saves Harry, but catches a cold and goes deaf in one ear, the little wuss. Why, I’ve seen septuagenarian members of the Polar Bear Club pull off the same thing with nothing worse to show for it than a scrotum shriveled to the size and texture of a walnut.
Cut to the drug store, where young Mary waits at the soda fountain for the half-deaf heartthrob to show up and start jerking. She orders a chocolate sundae without the coconut, which sends George into a rage.
“No coconut! Listen, brainless, don’t you know where coconuts come from?” It turns out that George is sneaking around with a copy of the National Geographic, America’s leading source of porn in 1919, and it’s filled his head with dreams of harems, and indigenous fruit trees.
Meanwhile, the druggist, Mr. Gower, is lurking in the background, smoking a five cent stogie and getting blasted on grain alcohol. George snoops in Gower’s private correspondence and discovers that his son is dead, and goes into the back to see if he can freshen the old man’s drink. Instead, he catches Gower putting poison in some capsules intended for a child. We can tell this because he’s filling the prescription from a gigantic apothecary jar that says POISON on the label, but I’m sure it’s totally an accident.
George goes to his dad’s Building and Loan, whatever the hell that is, to ask him if he should deliver poison to a sick child, but dad is too busy getting reamed out by small town plutocrat Mr. Potter. George shoves the elderly cripple and screams at him, then blithely returns to the pharmacy, where the drunken druggist beats him about the head until his diseased ear begins to hemorrhage. George eventually works his way around to mentioning the poison, and suddenly, with blackmail hanging over his head, Gower is hugging the kid and kissing his ass. George, bruised and bleeding profusely, embraces his rotgut-reeking tormentor and promises to keep their dirty little secret. Amazingly, this will turn out to be George’s healthiest relationship.
It’s now 10 years later, and George is now 30 years older. Gower finally pays George off for his silence by buying him a suitcase so he’ll leave town. Turns out George has been working at the Building and Loan for the past four years so he can save for college, and now Harry is graduating from high school and preparing to take George’s place. To celebrate his commencement, Harry sexually harasses their black maid, Annie, by chasing her into the kitchen and spanking her ass. Annie, of course, is as free to decline Harry’s overtures as the Thurmond family maid was to rebuff the attentions of young Strom.
Anyway, George is leaving for college at the tender age of 38, and it’s a shock for dad, who hopes he’ll come back and take over the Building and Loan. But George has ambition and high ideals, he wants to erect amazing structures and plan modern cities. In short, he wants to shake the dust of this crummy little town off his feet and take over Gary Cooper’s part in The Fountainhead.
George hangs around Harry’s high school graduation dance (he’s sort of the Jazz Age equivalent of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused). George and Mary reunite in the gym, reliving those golden days when he called her brainless, then got slapped around until he bled. Then Harry announces the big dance contest, and George and Mary do the Charleston in a scene that’s only slightly more depressing than They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Unfortunately, they’re cutting a rug at Beverly Hills High School, which has a pool under the gym floor, and thanks to shenanigans, tomfoolery, and a large quantity of homemade gin, they fall in.
Mary and George walk home, dressed in a robe and a football uniform respectively, pausing to sing “Buffalo Gals” and to vandalize the Munster’s house. George breaks a window with a rock, and makes a wish that he’ll escape Bedford Falls, see the great wide world, and build bridges and skyscrapers and huge modern dams and do great things for mankind. Then Mary breaks a window and makes a wish that all of George’s dreams will turn to ash, and he’ll wind up a miserable failure, stuck for the rest of his life in this dismal little burg that he hates. Because she loves him.
George gets lyrical and goes off on some weird rant about making Mary swallow the moon, which is clearly a dirty metaphor, but it’s not enough for the old voyeur peeping at them from a balcony, who loudly demands that George give her a little lip and tongue action! George doesn’t like to be micromanaged, however, and exceeds expectations by tearing Mary’s robe off.
George’s naked prey retreats to a clump of hydrangeas, while George slowly circles the bushes, tauntingly holding her robe just out of reach. But the sexual extortion is derailed when George’s dad has a stroke.
The Building and Loan, which George loathes, will be dissolved unless he takes over, so naturally the chump gives his school money to his kid brother, who goes on to become a football star and to marry a hot blond. And when Harry finally, four years later, returns to relieve George at the Building and Loan, it turns out that his new wife’s father owns a factory, and has offered a Harry a plum job researching glass.
Surely George will hold Harry to their agreement, and finally get free of this tarpit-like town. Nope. By now it’s clear that George is the single biggest cinematic doormat since Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl, and I fully expect that before the movie is over, we’ll see him curled up in a trunk in a head-to-toe latex gimp suit.
But first we see George’s Uncle Billy deal with the soul-deadening monotony of Bedford Falls by getting so stinking, stupid drunk that he literally can’t remember where his house is. But George sends him weaving blindly down the street anyway, assuming that once he vomits on the neighbors’ front porch, he’ll be able to stave off the convulsions until he gets home.
As it turns out, George’s Mom has also had a few too many, because she comes out of the house and kisses her grown son full on the mouth. George responds by kissing her back and saying “I can see right through you, Mother. Right through to your back collar button,” which I guess is a roundabout way of confessing that he watches her through his X-Ray Specs when she’s not looking. Fortunately, Mom sobers up enough to realize that if George doesn’t go out and get laid soon, their house is going to start resembling the royal palace in Thebes, so she tells George to go pester Mary, who’s back from – I don’t know – Spinster School, I guess.
On the way, George tries to pick up town slut Violet, but he won’t spring for a motel room and wants to rut al fresco. But as the designated municipal floozy, Violet has hand, and when George can’t meet her quote, he’s forced to drag his sorry ass over to Mary’s house for a pot luck booty call.
George and Mary sit in the parlor and pitch passive-aggressive woo until Sam Wainwright, the Richie Rich of Bedford Falls, calls from New York to offer them both a chance to invest in the plastic soybean business. George explodes! He doesn’t want any part of marriage, or wealth, or happiness, he just wants to go abroad and mispronounce the word “Venezuela.” But he’s seduced by Mary, because her Hair Smells Terrific.
Cut to George and Mary emerging from the church on their wedding day. Ironically, it’s raining.
Well, at least George can finally get out of this abysmal, postage stamp-sized town, if only for a two-week honeymoon. New York, Bermuda, the highest hotels, the oldest champagne, the…Oh oh. Seems George got married on Black Monday, and the angry mob outside the Building and Loan has all the earmarks of a run on the bank. Okay, I admit…THAT’S ironic.
The panicky shareholders demand their money, or they’ll sell out to Potter, but George buys their loyalty with all the cash intended to finance his honeymoon. Man, Bedford Falls is starting to look that like that Twilight Zone episode where William Shatner’s car breaks down in some sinister small town, and he and his wife are prevented from leaving by a magical napkin dispenser.
Mary calls George and tells him to come to their new home – the abandoned old house with the broken windows. Inside, the place is falling down – the stairs are missing treads, the roof is leaking, and though it’s hard to tell from the black-and-white photography, I’m pretty sure someone has written “Piggy” on the wall in blood.
Cut to George and Mary helping the stereotypically Italian Martini family move into Bailey Park, which is not only the most depressing-looking housing tract ever grafted onto the ass-end of a one horse town, it was also built on top of an old cemetery, so the pools are probably filled with angry Native American skeletons.
Then World War II comes along, and everybody gets to be a hero except George, who is reduced to collecting scraps of rubber and blowing a whistle at people who don’t pull their shades all the way down.
Well, we’re over an hour into the film, and guess what? We’re still in a flashback. God tells Joseph to wrap this thing up so we can get to George’s Special Day. It starts off with Harry getting the Congressional Medal of Honor, and George getting a visit from the bank examiner. Then lifelong alcoholic Uncle Billy absentmindedly hands the entirety of the Building and Loan’s cash assets to Mr. Potter. Meanwhile, George gives his last few dollars to Violet so she can go to New York, because she’s peaked as a prostitute in Bedford Falls, and needs to find a street corner with room for advancement.
George finally decides to stand up for himself by throwing Uncle Billy under the bus. “One of us is going to jail,” he snarls, “And it ain’t gonna be me!” He goes home and storms around the house, freaking out the kids and refusing to tell them how to spell “frankincense.” He grabs the phone away from Mary so he can insult his daughter’s teacher and threaten her husband, then he screams at his kids and throws things around until the big-eyed tykes tremble in fear and begin to weep. Watching this scene, I couldn’t help thinking…This is the best Christmas ever! (Admittedly, my family set the bar kinda low…)
George goes crawling to Potter for help, pissing his last few drops of dignity down his pantleg. Instead, Potter summons the police, so George runs off to Martini’s bar, where he gets liquored up and prays.
The teacher’s husband punches him in the face, which George takes as a sign that he should go drive drunk in a snowstorm until he crashes into a tree. Well, things have taken a dark turn, but thankfully he’s still got his life insurance policy, so he goes to the river to drown himself, too intoxicated to realize that suicide voids the policy.
George wishes he’d never been born, which I can’t argue with, but it would have been nice if he’d wished it about an hour and forty minutes ago. But Clarence his guardian angel grants the wish and…voila! George was never born. He has hearing in his bad ear, his split lip has healed and suddenly it’s stopped snowing, because apparently Bedford Falls only gets crappy weather because George Bailey lives there.
Also, the town is now called Pottersville, and it’s a swingin’ place. Martini’s bar has live music, is packed with B-girls, and is run by Sheldon Leonard. And we learn that every time a hard-faced bartender in a sleazy dive throws a few greasy, wrinkled dollar bills in a cash register, an angel gets its wings.
Old man Gower shows up, even drunker and stinkier than he was in the flashback, but Sheldon has the good sense to hose the reeking hobo down with a seltzer bottle. Seems the druggist did 20 years hard time, because without George to interfere, his kid-poisoning scheme went off without a hitch.
George goes home to the Amityville House, only to find it re-abandoned. Bert the cop tries to arrest him, but is distracted when Clarence bites him on the hand. Sadly, Bert was allergic to angel venom, and goes into anaphylactic shock.
We cut to George, who is on his knees in the graveyard that he once turned into a crappy postwar bedroom tract, while Clarence chirps, “You see George, you’ve really had a wonderful life.” Now, ordinarily I’m against elder abuse, but seeing as how George is going to jail anyway…
But the last piece of news is so awful that Clarence isn’t supposed to reveal it. Mary is…is…an OLD MAID. She never married! And she’s just about to close up the library!
We see Mary, dressed in a mannish suit and sporting a fedora, and realize that –Whew! – it’s okay. She’s not an old maid, she’s just dating Alice B. Toklas. Oddly, though, George’s existence was apparently the only thing keeping Mary from developing astigmatism, because suddenly she needs glasses.
George goes back to the bridge where he tried to kill himself, and begs for a mulligan. Suddenly, it’s snowing again, his mouth is bleeding, his car is once again wrapped around a tree, and he is overcome with joy.
George goes home and finds the authorities ready to take him in. Also present is his huge brood of kids that we never really get to know, but for once he seems happy to see them. Then Mary arrives, and she knows him, and can see without glasses, and isn’t a lesbian anymore. It’s a Christmas miracle!
George stands by the tree while all the supporting players troop past and dump their spare change on a card table. Oh. I guess THAT’S the Christmas miracle. Mr. Martini empties his jukebox and his cash register and gives all his money to George, but Mary still demands that he serve everyone with free wine as well. Well okay, your highness. How are you fixed for socks and underwear?
Suddenly Harry is undead and shows up to make a sappy toast, and everyone sings a premature chorus of Auld Lange Syne. Then George bumps the tree, causing an ornament to tinkle, and daughter Zuzu lisps, “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” Since we got the impression earlier that Zuzu attends the local public school, All I can say is, Madelyn Murray O’Hair needs to get on the stick.
Oh. And Merry Christmas you wonderful old Blog and Loan! Merry Christmas everyone!