Ah Christmas is only a week away and along with celebrating the birth of my Lord by trampling each other to save 20% on an Xbox at Wal-Mart (while supplies last), it also means that it’s time to get all misty eyed as we are treated to serial re-runs of Frank Capra’s iconic 1946 holiday film It’s A Wonderful Life.
I've watched this movie more times than I can count on both hands and feet and like many Americans I still come away with that warm fuzzy feeling. I adore this bit of Americana and will take on comers in arguing that Jimmy Stewart (in his first role after returning from the war) as the multi-faceted George Bailey, does some of the finest acting in any film in any genre. But one character in this film always bothered me. In fact, I believe that the more appropriate title of Capra’s project should have been It’s A Wonderful Life – If You’re Harry Bailey!
Think about it. George Bailey’s kid brother makes out like a bandit in this flick. And why is that? Because throughout this film, Harry (Todd Karns) is a steam-roller of self-centeredness. I will even go so far as to say that Harry Bailey (who was never intended to be a bad guy) is one of the most despicable characters in movies. In scriptwriting it’s formulaic that two villains be created to inject multiple layers of conflict. Obviously the wealthy but bitter and twisted Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is the uber-villain. But who’s the other antagonist? That would be Harry Bailey, who plays his older brother for a sucker throughout the film. In fact, Harry is either directly or indirectly the root cause of all George’s miseries.
From a young age Harry seems to conspire to keep George pinned down in Bedford Falls , freeing him to fulfill his own dreams while leaving his older brother’s aspirations in a broken heap. As a child he falls through the ice compelling George to jump into the freezing water to save him and lose hearing in one ear for his heroics.
Later, after their father dies suddenly, a deal is struck whereby George surrenders his college money to Harry. The idea is that when Harry graduates he’ll come back and take over the family business, freeing George to once and for all leave Bedford Falls behind. For four years George stays shackled to their father’s Bailey Building & Loan, a small and wholly unfulfilling nickel-and-dime enterprise he despises, all the while counting down the days of Harry’s return as he plans his future travels abroad.
But when the big day comes what does slippery Harry do? After letting his brother sacrifice his best years to honor the deal, Harry comes home and announces out of the blue: “Meet the wife!” Whuuuh? No wedding? No family--including a widowed mother--at the ceremony? Not even a meet-and-greet beforehand? Nothing save an ambiguous telegram beforehand announcing he is returning home with "big news?"
We very quickly see that there’s a reason for Harry’s secrecy of course. George learns through Harry’s new bride, Ruth, that he’s already lined up a sweet job at her father’s company. In a brazen demonstration of insincerity, Harry pulls George aside and says all faux guilt-ridden: “You’ve been holding the bag here for four years… and, well, I won’t let you down, George. But I would like to talk–” Whammo! The older Bailey’s face reveals a man whose hopes and dreams have just been ripped out and splattered onto the floor. Great brother, huh? He springs a heretofore unknown wife on an unsuspecting George and then uses her as leverage to renege on their deal after four years of expectations that his purgatory was at an end. George takes another bullet for Harry and reluctantly stays on at the Bailey B & L. Young Harry, with his new wife, a great job and degree in hand (the diploma originally intended for George remember) is free to move onward and upward to live his own wonderful life.
One would think the advent of World War II finally gives George a chance to see the world. Even if in uniform and with all risks going to war entails at least adventure calls, right? Bzzzz! Sorry. He’s got a bum ear thanks to Harry remember? Thus is he 4-F and ineligible for military service. America’s mobilizing millions of her citizens and shipping them off to all parts of the globe George so desperately wants to explore, but because his good ol’ kid brother was dumb enough to slip through the ice, he’s outta luck, left behind to fight the battle of Bedford Falls. To add insult to injury, all the men from Bedford Falls like Bert the cop (wounded in North Africa, Silver Star) Ernie the cab driver (parachutes into France ) and the other band of misfits and screwballs that inhabit George’s small world return home as heroes.
Not to be outdone, Harry Bailey, his ears very much intact, goes off to do battle in the most exciting of fashions as a Navy fighter pilot. Naturally at war’s end he’s awarded the Medal Of Honor for his heroics (did we expect less?) and on Christmas Eve finds himself in the White House meeting with the president; at the same time a frantic brother George is desperately avoiding some probing bank examiners as he stumbles about the snow-covered streets of Bedford Falls in a forlorn search for the eight grand in cash (that’s 100k in today’s money) that his dimwitted Uncle Billy – who was supposed to be working for Harry at this point remember – allowed to be stolen right out from under him by the conniving Potter. It happened because Billy (Thomas Mitchell) is so distracted from bragging to Potter about the exploits of, you guessed it, Harry Bailey, that he moronically leaves the money quite literally in the old man’s lap and struts off. Harry strikes again.
In the end, after his guardian angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) does his job and everything works out okay—meaning George doesn’t either kill himself or get arrested for fraud—a uniformed Harry Bailey, having been flown up from Washington D.C., muscles his way to the front and center of the crowd of townsfolk gathered at the Bailey home to help pay off George’s debt, and offers a toast: “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.” For now anyway. One wonders how long that will last before Harry pulls another self-centered stunt that will certainly benefit him at that same big brother’s expense. (Come to think of it, I didn’t see Harry reach into his pocket when the hat was passed around did you?)
Don’t let that smile fool you, Georgie boy. Harry probably just wants something from you.