Hello everyone and welcome to episode 45, where today we look at 7 relationship lessons found in the greatest Christmas movie ever made. I never, ever, in a hundred million years, ever want to be known for exaggeration and hyperbole. So it’s going to be a challenge for me to reign myself in when talking about the wonders found in It’s a Wonderful Life!, that 1947 Christmas movie classic staring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
The thing I like about the movie is that while it’s become a holiday tradition for people to watch, it’s more than just one of those Christmas feel good movies. There’s so much relational, and spiritual wisdom, found in this film that’s easy to miss because it’s become so familiar to many of us.
So today I’m suggesting that during this Christmas season, when you watch It’s a Wonderful Life! you look at through the lens of relationships. It will be a much richer experience for you, and the people you watch it with.Let me first remind you of the plot of the movie. The main character, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, grows up in Bedford Falls prior to WWII. From the time he was young, George was a very popular, engaging person, well-liked by everyone. George had big dreams for himself – to live a life larger than could be lived in a place like Bedford Falls. He talked often about his dream of traveling to far away places where he would work as an engineer to build big things like skyscrapers and bridges.
George grew up in a loving family where his father and uncle ran the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, a savings institution in competition with the bank in town owned by the antagonist in the movie, Henry Potter. “Old man Potter” as he was called. George’s father, Peter Bailey died suddenly and George puts his plans to go to college on hold to run the savings & loan, while his younger brother Harry goes off to college. The plan was that once Harry graduated from college, he would take over the Building & Loan, so George could leave Bedford Falls to pursue an education and his dreams
But things didn’t turn out as planned. Harry returns from college, not just with a diploma, but also with a wife and a job out of town with his father-in-law. All this leaves George with the responsibility of running the Building & Loan, causing him to feel all the more trapped, which is a major theme of the movie.
On Christmas Eve, Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000 right as a bank examiner shows up for an audit. If the money isn’t found, it will mean bankruptcy, scandal, and jail time for George. He’s beside himself with fear, and it brings out the worst in him. The rest of the film is about how George goes about dealing with this problem, and how others deal with George. If ever there was a movie about relationships, this would be it.
Here are 7 relationship lessons I learned from this movie. I’ll have a list of them in the bottom of the show notes for this episode.
1. Before is often better than now
Great things happened before we were born. The film came out in 1947, before I was born, and before almost all of you were born. It was not well received by the contemporary culture of its day. It took years for it to become a Christmas classic. Important things in our culture take time to be appreciated. I'm cautioned me to not elevate the contemporary over what has come before. As a culture, we tend to over-value new, at the expense of before.
Often we value the new only because it’s new, and not for any intrinsic value of its own. Christmas is not a time for new. It’s best experienced for it’s before-ness, not its new-ness.
This concept is often true in relationships. We can easily get wrapped up in new relationships, that take us away from relationships that have been years in the making. New isn’t always better than before. Imagine what would happen if we took the energy we pour into new relationships, and instead directed that energy toward reinvigorating relationships that served us well in the past.
2. People need our prayers
A second thing that struck me in the film is the significant amount of prayer in the movie. There are 3 scenes where we see this
- In the opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life! I hear 7 different people praying to God, interceding on behalf of George Bailey. They were aware he was in trouble and in need. Makes me wonder about people in my community. Which of them are in trouble and in need of intervention from God? Do we know the important people in our life well enough to know their needs that we could pray for. We are all much needier than we care to admit.
- Then in the scene the night of Christmas Eve after George comes home and yells at the kids, kicks over the model bridge in his living room, and throws papers all over the floor, he finally walks out the door. Mary picks up the phone to make a call, while two of the kids, Janie and Tommy ask their mom, “Should I pray for Daddy?”
- Finally, near the end of the film George is sitting at bar, at his wits end as to how in the world he’s going to get $8k to make to make up for the shortfall at the Building and Loan. Wringing his hands, and looking ever so distraught, George prays under his breathe, “Oh Father in heaven. I’m not a praying man. Show me the way, I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way.” Interesting prayer. It wasn’t until George was at the end of his rope that God comes through and in a short time, answers George’s prayer and the prayers of others. And he answers in a most unusual way.
For some people, it takes coming to the end of themselves before they turn to God. How much better, and wiser, though, would it be to call upon God before we come to the end of our self. This is an important principle I picked up from the movie; I hope it resonates with you, too.
3. Good leaders are good with relationships
Another thing that caught my eye is the way in which George Bailey was a leader in relationships. We see it early in the movie when as a 12-year old he organizes his friends for a snow sledding event down a small hill, using snow shovels for
sleds. You could tell he was in charge. Then brother Harry falls into a hole in the ice and George forms a rescue party to save his brother.
We have corporate leaders, organizational leaders, ministry leaders, but we don’t talk much about relational leaders. Leaders who lead others into better and deeper
levels of relationships. George Bailey was such a leader, not only as a 12 year old, but also as an adult in his work at the Savings and Loan, and respected citizen of Bedford Falls. At the end of movie all that money comes pouring in, because of the love people have for GB and the relationships he has developed with them.
4. Keenly observing people enables us to help them
Another relationship lesson I learned is the power of being a keen observer of people. George Bailey could “read the room” as a keen observer of people and the human condition. This skill allowed him to connect the dots with people, to understand then better. He pictures himself in the shoes of another. As a kid at his after-school job at Mr. Gower’s drug store – he saw Mr. Gower in a drunken state – then he saw the telegram about his son Robert’s death. He saw this as an explanation for why Mr. Gower was the way he was. His observation skills allowed him to extend grace to Mr. Gower for slapping him upside the head.
George, as a young boy, shows his relational maturity when he realizes Mr. Gower put poison in the prescription he filled. He sees the poster “Ask Dad” seeks him out, but he’s in a meeting. Confronts Mr. Gower. Pretty brave of him to do so.
By the way did you notice the role of alcohol in the movie? The incident with Mr. Gower, and then Uncle Billy’s drinking problem. We see this first when Harry comes home from college with a new wife, and then he gets drunk at the welcoming home party.
We get insight into his problem in the scene on Xmas Eve where George goes over to Uncle Billy’s house to look for the lost $8,000. George roughs up his Uncle and Billy said he’s “looked through the entire house; even those rooms that have been locked up since I lost Laura.”
He’s a bit muffled when he says it, but it could explain his drinking. Just like Mr. Gower was drinking upon learning the death of his son Robert. Uncle Billy’s was coping with the death of his wife Laura, and possibly his brother, Peter Bailey.
Then we see Uncle Billy the day the S & L closed for the day when there was a run on the bank. Using George and Mary’s wedding money, they had $2 left when they closed at 6pm. Uncle Billy celebrates by drinking.
To what extent do you make it a practice to “read the room,” to take notice of what people might be feeling? Hmm.
5. That which bothers us most often reveals the idols in our life
George, from early on, had a sense of adventure. He wanted to travel, build big things, bridges, skyscrapers.
He shares his dream with Mary in the scene where they throw stones at the vacant Granville house. He tells Mary, “I’m throwing the dust off this crummy little town. I’m gonna see the world, then build skyscraper and bridges a mile long”
We see lot again when George’s father asked him if he would come back to the building and loan. The anguish on George’s face. He’d feel trapped at the Building and Loan, “I want to do something important. If I don’t get away I think I’ll bust.”
George’s dream for his life comes through loudly in the scene where Harry returns home on the train with his new wife, that no one in his family knew about (and this is a close family????? )
The sister-in-law lets it slip that her father offered Harry for a job, meaning he wouldn’t be taking over for George at the building and loan so he can leave Bedford Falls. Oh, the anguish on George’s face at the train station!!
We see it again at the welcome home party for HB and his new wife Ruth. Uncle Billy gets drunk. George hears the train whistle with a melancholy expression contemplating his dark future stuck in Bedford Falls.
This goal for his life culminates in the scene where George roughs up Uncle Billy while looking for the missing money. In his anger he calls Uncle Billy a silly old fool. “Don’t you realize what this means. It means scandal, bankruptcy and one of us is having to jail, well it’s not going to be me.”
Yeah, jail. The physical manifestation of his emotional entrapment.
For George, “throwing the dust off this crummy little town. I’m gonna see the world, then build skyscraper and bridges a mile long“ has clearly become his idol.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with what George wanted. but when it becomes this important, and it replaces other good things, when it becomes too important, it becomes an idol. When not getting what you want causes this much anger, it’s become an idol.
His idol is change and wanting something he doesn’t have. But as we see at the end of the movie, he had already “traveled,” in a sense. Because of his relationship skills, he was “traveling” wonderful journeys into the hearts and minds of the people of Bedford Falls. He had already built big things, deep and long lasting relationships with the people he encountered. His life was already a truly Wonderful Life!
What are the idols in your life? What are the good things in your life that have become TOO important, that have caused you stress because you don’t have what you want?
6. Relationships have the power to calm our hearts in the midst of stress and turmoil.
We see this in George’s relationship with Mary. “What do you want, Mary? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll through a lasso around it. I’ll give you the moon and you can swallow it and the moon beams will flow out of the ends of your fingers and hair.” What a great line. George and Mary soon get married.
After the run on the bank that drained all their honeymoon money, and that drained George emotionally from dealing with this crisis at work, George goes home to find Mary, who greets him with a wide smile and says, “Welcome home George Bailey.” The expression on her face causes the tension in George to just drip off the scree. It’s his relationship with Mary that calms George’s heart.
At the very end of the film, after dealing with the misplaced $8,000, George gets his 2nd chance to live again. He runs home. Mary then enters house runs up the stairs. Hugs George. Then takes him downstairs, clears two card tables and says,“It’s a miracle, George, It’s a miracle.” Mary opens the door, calls Uncle Billy in, carrying a big wicker laundry basket full of cash.
(Hark! the Hearld Angels Sing playing in the background)
A very-excited- Uncle Billy then says, “Mary did it George. Mary did it. She scoured all over town telling people you were in trouble….” Then a crowd of people start coming through the door, each bringing in more money for George. Sam Wainwright sent a telegram from London saying Mr. Gower wired him. He authorized the transfer of up to $25,000 for George Bailey”
I love this scene at the end. Mary is standing in the background and lets all the other people who care for George to come through the door to greet him and contribute their money. His relationship with his family is what ultimately calms George’s heart in the midst of the prospect of scandal and jail-time.
This example of relationships having the power to calm our hearts in the midst of stress and turmoil raises the question of what relationship do I have that calms my heart like this.
While our relationships with people can certainly do this, the ultimate source of peace and calm in our hearts is readily available to us in our relationship with God. The bible is overflowing with stories and verses that attest to this fact.
7. When we pray for a solution to a problem, God often provides one we never could have imagined.
After the scene where George gets angry and throws a fit is living room and knocks down the model bridge, and then walks out the door, there’s this awkward moment of silence. For all the wonderful qualities of George Bailey, we see a darker side to him, which is one of the reasons I like this movie so much. Like all of his, he’s a mature of virtue and vice. His anger is out of control.
I refer to this scene when I give talks on anger, and helping people understand the anger in others and what to do about it. But we’ll save that for another episode.
Anyway, back to this scene. After George walks out the door, Mary gets on the phone and calls Bedford 247 and says, “Hello? Uncle Billy?”
Next scene is George at Mr. Potter’s office. “I’m in trouble Mr. Potter.” Interesting contrast on where he and Mary go for help. George to Old Man Potter. Mary to Uncle
Billy the people who know George best. George went to outsiders for help. Mary went to the insiders of their tribe..
Then we have those great scenes showing God answering the prayers of the 7 people at the very beginning of the film, and George himself. He uses Clarence Oddbody, AS2 (Angel 2nd class), who before he died and became an angel was a clock maker, described by Joseph has “having the IQ of a rabbit.” The voice of God counters with , “Yes, but he has the faith of a child – simple.” How so like God to use people like this to further his purposes and bring glory to himself
We see George on abridge, looking down into the waves of the cold river below, contemplating suicide so Mary could collect his life insurance to pay off the missing $8k.. Clarence then jumps in the water, and cries for help. George dives into the water in to save him.
The attendant at the bridge asks Clarence, “How did you happen to fall in? “I didn’t fall in; I jumped in to save George.” Sometimes the best thing we can do to help someone is to be needy, to put our self in a position for someone to help us, like Clarence did.
While drying off, George tells Clarence that his bleeding came from a punch to his jaw, as an answer to his prayer. Clarence, “Oh no, George. I’m the answer to your prayer. I was sent down to save you, by letting you help me.”
Sometimes what we think is the answer to our prayer is entirely different than what we think!!!!!! Clarence is his guardian angel, he says.
This is hard for George to accept help. He’s been doing it on his own for the whole movie. He’s helping others, but isn’t letting others help him.
Clarence’s challenge is to get George to appreciate all he has done in investing in relationships throughout his life. Clarence keeps saying “If it hadn’t been for you…” That is George’s underlying problem. George, however, is thinking only about the need for the $8k.
Then Clarence gets an idea from heaven, when George says “I wish I never would have been born” he stops using logic to change his mind. Clarence stops fighting GB ,and instead begins to show him the implications of what happens if he gets what he wants.
Clarence then shows what actually would have happened if George had never been born. One in particular that hits home with George was Clarence showing the tremendous loss of life from a transport ship sinking.
Clarence says “Every man on that transport died because Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry. he died at 8 years of age.”
Clarence: “Strange, isn’t it. Each man affects every other man.”
This finally registers with George. After this he rushes back to the bridge. He calls for Clarence, his guardian angel. “Clarence, Clarence, get me back. Get me back. I don’t care what happens to me. Get me back to my wife and kids. Help[ me Clarence, Please. Please. I want to live again
[ NOTE: he’s asking for help. It’s like a prayer…] he says several times “I want to live again. I want to love again. Please God, let me live again” So it was a prayer to God.]
What a remarkable and unimaginable means God used to answer the prayers of many on behalf of George Bailey. An angel second class, “with the IQ of a rabbit, but the faith of a child.” It’s just like him!
Here’s a list of the 7 relationship lessons I picked up from this movie.
- Before is often better than now
- People need our prayers
- Good leaders are good with relationships
- Keen observing of people enables us to help them
- That which bothers us most reveals the idols in our life
- Relationships have the power to calm our hearts in the midst of stress and turmoil
- When we pray for a solution to a problem, God often provides one we never could have imagined.
Here’s the one thing to remember from today’s episode, our show in a sentence:
It truly is a “Wonderful Life!” when we invest in relationships, caring for each other, even though the deepest longings in our own heart are never satisfied.
Here are some suggestions for what you can do in response to today’s show.
First off, make plans now to see It’s a Wonderful Life! soon. Carefully consider WHERE you see it.
If you can, go see the movie on the big screen in a movie theater. There’s something about that big gray Liberty Bell from Liberty Films that you just don’t get watching the movie at home.
Second best, is to rent or buy the DVD of the movie. I bought the DVD on Amazon.
Under no circumstances should you ever ever ever watch the colorized version!
As a last resort, watch it on network TV during the Christmas season. But with all the interruptions for commercials it loses a lot.
Then consider HOW to watch the film.
Watch it with your family or friends. And then discuss it with them
Watch it looking for the relationships lessons I mentioned. You’ll probably find even more that what I’ve commented about.
Consider what a wonderful place our community would be if we were more like Bedford Falls, and cared for each other like the characters in the movie. With that in mind, watch It’s a Wonderful Life! looking for a character or two you could aspire to be more like. George Bailey? Mary? Peter Bailey. Mr. Gower. But if it’s Old Man Potter…. Consider what you could do to make your town a bit like Bedford Falls
Finally, watch it looking to see where God is at work in the life of the characters. That’s important, because as we God at work in the lives of other people, it reminds us how He can work in our life too…if we let him.
Our other listeners and me would love to hear what resonated with you about today’s episode. You can share your thoughts in the “Leave a Reply” box at the bottom of the show notes. Or you can send them to me in an email to email@example.com.
Next week will be our last episode of Season Two. But we’ll start up again soon with Season Three of You Were Made for This in January. I’ll explain more next week.
Now for Our Relationship Quote of the Week
Strange, isn’t it. Each man affects every other man.
~ Clarence Oddbody, Angel first class, because he earns his wings by the end of the film)
That’s all for today. See you next week. Bye for now.
Resources mentioned in today’s show
It was great seeing you at my daughter’s Christmas Eve gathering. Laura made me aware of your article and podcast “Seven Relationship Lessons from the Greatest Christmas Movie Ever Made” and I must tell you I thoroughly enjoyed it! The relationship lessons you extracted from it are all superb. Number 6, “Relationships have the power to calm our hearts in the midst of stress and turmoil” reminds me of the Roseto Effect discovered in the early 1960’s that caused the citizens of this Pennsylvania town to have zero deaths due to heart disease. The reason; close family ties and community relationships.
This movie is my favorite also because of the struggles people endured and their faith, friendships and fidelity towards one another.
There is an aspect of the movie that goes perhaps unappreciated as time goes on and I want to share it with you; the understanding of what the dollar amounts mean today. When I converted the numbers to 2019 dollars I concluded Frank Capra used large sums of money to show the responsibility, pressure and in most cases the great selflessness and generosity in people. And a lot of the timing in the movie is during the Great Depression when times were especially tough for people financially. I researched and found what the dollar amounts mean in 2019 and they are incredible.
The 1932 scene where there is a run on the B&L and people want their money. Mary offers the $2,000 for their honeymoon to keep the B&L solvent. She is only 22 at this point and that $2,000 in her hand is worth $34,415 today! Tom demands his $242, ($4,164), but the others begin to realize the big picture and ask smaller amounts to get by. Ed and Miss Thompson ask for only for $20, ($344), Miss Davis asks for $17.50 ($301) at which point George kisses her in gratitude.
In the 1935 scene Bailey Park is growing and Potter has had it. He invites George to his office to try to hire him. He states George is 28 making $45 a week. This is only $43,872 a year, not a lot especially when he gets home that night and learns Mary is expecting. Potter offers him a $20,000 annual salary, ($374,975!) and turns him down. And this is after Sam Wainwright visited Bailey Park in a 1931 Duesenberg worth $312,901 and George is driving a 16 year old Dodge from 1919.
The 1945 Christmas Eve scene has George giving Violet $200 ($2,822) to start a new life in New York. No wonder why Potter says rumors of George and Violet were starting. To overcome the Potter theft of the $8,000 ($112,914), Sam Wainwright approves wiring $25,000 ($352,855) to close the deficit.
It would be great to get your insights on this. I hope to see you next year at Laura’s gathering and we can discuss!
Have a glorious New Year!
Thanks for your reply, Tom. Likewise for me it great seeing you and your wife at Laura’s on Christmas Eve. I just loved the atmosphere in their house. The numbers you mention in the movie, converted to 2019 dollars is certainly staggering. Old man Potter (by the way, the accountant for our business for many years was a Mr. Potter, one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. My son still referred to him as “Old Man Potter”.) offering George a $374,000 salary, and then George turning it down, speaks to the character of George. I didn’t pick up on the make of Sam Wainwright’s car or George’s in the scene you mention. I’ll have to watch for that next time. Related to your observations, is the comment Uncle Billy makes when it seems like he might be out of a job. “Don’t worry about me, George. I can find another job. I’m only 55.” I laugh every time I hear this line. I’m glad you liked this episode, Tom. I hope you check out some of the others from seasons one and two. Season three starts January 22. May your 2020 be glorious as well!