Every year, my family watches “It’s a Wonderful Life” during the Christmas season. For many years I watched this movie uncritically, accepting what Frank Capra presented to me, but then one year I played Mary Hatch in a stage adaptation of the film and came to a remarkable conclusion: George Bailey kind of sucks. Does he usually do the right thing eventually? Yeah, usually, but he also BITCHES AND MOANS about it ad infinitum and makes all his regrets and frustrations Mary’s fault. Mary Hatch didn’t ask for all this nonsense George. Fix your own problems for once in your whole life. MARY HATCH IS THE TRUE HERO OF “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.” You heard it here first.
Mary Hatch grows up with a crush on George Bailey, and look, I get it, Jimmy Stewart is a deeply charismatic man and Frank Capra writes for him like a dream. I understand the allure. But in every single scene we see them in together, George Bailey is being a low-key pain in the ass to Mary. The very first interaction we see George and Mary have together is at the soda shop where he tells her all about his subscription to National Geographic magazine and how he’s going to be an explorer someday. (Explorer is not a profession, George). Does he ask her anything about her life or her dreams or her important magazine subscriptions? NOT ONCE. He asks her what ice cream she wants and then BERATES HER FOR NOT WANTING COCONUT AS A TOPPING and then PUTS COCONUT ON HER ICE CREAM ANYWAY. Typical George Bailey, always prioritizing his own preferences. And Mary is right, coconut is gross on ice cream, it’s far too stringy.
The next interaction we see them have together is on the night of Mary’s high school graduation party, which ends with them falling into a swimming pool while dancing together. (Also, Mary’s brother Marty has to talk George into dancing with Mary because for some reason George doesn’t like Mary? But then he sees she is hot now so he agrees. Rude?) They end up walking home together in borrowed locker room garb, carrying their chlorine soaked clothes. Mary is wearing a bathrobe, which she loses, and then has to run and hide in a bush because she is NAKED AND VULNERABLE IN PUBLIC and George PICKS UP HER BATHROBE AND REFUSES TO RETURN IT TO HER. That is not cute and flirty, that is RUDE and EXPLOITATIVE OF MARY’S VULNERABILITY and if I were Mary it would give me immense anxiety. Can you imagine being nude in a bush in 1928, where there are branches poking into you and probably spiders on your butt and who knows what else? HORRIFYING. This flirting does not make me feel romantic. Don’t think you can cancel this out with cutesy singing and whimsical property damage, George. YOU DON’T DESERVE MARY AS YOUR BUFFALO GAL IF YOU’RE NOT GOING TO TREAT HER RIGHT.
When next we see him, it is four years later. Mary has just graduated college (which by the way is no small feat for a girl in 1932) and George’s mom thinks it would be nice if he were to stop in to visit her, given they have been relatively close since childhood and he clearly has a crush on her that he refuses to act on. George decides that instead of that, he’s going to wander the streets aimlessly. He runs into Violet, who is wearing a deeply fashionable satin dress with heels. George, seeing this, thinks “based on my observations and my understanding of Violet’s personality, which I ought to be familiar with, given that I have known her very well since we were both children, I bet Violet would like to go on a dirty late night hike with me in her heels and her satin dress.” Obviously Violet does not want to go on the hike. You could have deduced that with minimal observation, George; you really must start paying attention to other people. He finally decides to stop by Mary’s house. Mary look radiant, of course she does, she is played by Donna Reed, and she has made the most adorable and sweet cartoon of George lassoing the moon as a throwback to the last time they spent time together, because Mary is thoughtful and remembers things about other people, and George belittles her drawing! How dare he! He spends the rest of the visit being as unpleasant as he possibly can, contributing nothing to the conversation, and making snide comments about her home and everything she does, until Sam Wainwright calls and they end up sharing a telephone receiver to talk to him together. (And yes, I’ve been pretty snarky up to this point, but as a side note, this is the greatest scene in American cinema and you can quote me on that – George and Mary fell in love in the course of four minutes in a scene where they direct none of their dialogue to each other until the last twenty seconds. They fell in love through the strength of LIGHT CHEEK CONTACT and it’s honestly a masterclass. That’s all I have to say about it.) Anyway, obviously they fall deeply in love (after George spends some time shouting at Mary for no actual reason) and then they get married.
And then the sociopolitical problems begin! George and Mary are on their way to their honeymoon when ALL OF A SUDDEN, there is a run on the bank because it's the 1930s and that's what happens, and Mary is the one to decide they ought to use their honeymoon money to give people at the back, effectively keeping the bank open, investing in the community, and generating goodwill among the shareholders. Mary has good business sense AND is looking out for the good of the community. And then she arranges with Bert and Ernie to make them a cute little improvised honeymoon suite in their own house. And they grow up and go through their lives. George builds a lot of affordable housing for the community and Mary comes along to help people move and welcome the residents into their new homes. Meanwhile Mary’s raising children and renovating their whole house on her own, and RUNNING THE USO during WWII.
Then the war ends and Harry Bailey’s on his way home from the front, a decorated war hero. Everyone is thrilled! In all the hullaballoo though, Uncle Billy loses a big bank deposit. ($8,000 in 1945 money, which would be $109,694.07 in 2018 money according to the inflation calculator on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.) George is understandably furious, although frankly Uncle Billy has been absent minded for the last twenty years so this was a pretty foreseeable outcome; George really should have delegated that task to a different employee. Let Uncle Billy do what he is qualified to do – hang out with his crow, greet customers, and pass out butterscotch candy.
George, in despair, is on the verge of suicide but is saved by Clarence. Clarence takes George on his long dark journey of the soul, where he learns what would have happened if he’d never been born. You all know this plotline inside and out I’m sure, and all I really want to focus on is Mary’s fate in the Alternate George-less Universe. Everyone else has some weird awful dark fate: Ernie’s wife left him, Uncle Billy is in an asylum, Harry is dead. But after all these revelations, George is perhaps most horrified by what happens to Mary: she becomes a single librarian who wears glasses. Apparently, this is the worst thing George can possibly imagine for his wife although it sounds like a pretty rad life if you ask me. Books are cool and so are glasses George. Mary is thriving with or without a man.
But the really important thing is that while George is chilling with Clarence in the nightmare realm learning about himself, Mary quietly fixes the whole money problem by going around town and crowdfunding their debt. Everyone in town contributes and their old rich friend Sam Wainwright offers to cable them $25,000 ($342,793.96 in 2018 money, if you were curious). And so the problem is solved because Mary kept a clear head and asked her friends for help.
Mary’s strength is that she knows the strength and the value of community. She invests in them when they need help, and she isn’t afraid to draw support from them when she needs it. George is so focused on himself and his problems and his troubles that it rarely occurs to him to look to the people around him, people who value him and his work and want to help him out. He feels all alone because he thinks of himself as a singular, exceptional person – as a hero. He never wanted to stay in Bedford Falls; he wanted to get out of what he perceives to be a small and insignificant place, so it’s no surprise that he underestimates the power of the people there in his most trying time. Mary is able to solve the major problem of the movie (raising the money) because she can see the value and the strength in all kinds of places and people, because she knows all along that she’s a part of a larger whole. George’s journey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is to learn what Mary has known and demonstrated the whole time – not merely that George himself matters, but that all the little and seemingly unremarkable people in their community matter, and that the work George and Mary and the Bailey Building and Loan did for those people matters.
Anyway, I really don’t mean to be too harsh on George Bailey, because in his heart he is a sweetie (even if he needs several firm nudges from Mary to set him in the right direction), and “It’s a Wonderful Life” is truly one of my favorite movies by my favorite filmmaker. (Frank Capra will assuage all your woes, you take it from me.) Would that all our holiday movies concerned themselves with affordable housing and the ethical failures of unregulated capitalism. A toast to George and Mary! But mostly to Mary.