Sample Chapter

4. You matter to the world

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”


On his Christmas Eve “Life-Without-George” tour, our haunted hero has just had the door slammed in his face by his own mother at “Ma Bailey’s Boarding House.” Not even she acknowledges knowing George; and how could she? After all, in Clarence’s ploy to make George understand how much his life has mattered, the guinea pig in his little experiment, he has never been born.

After the encounter, the young Mr. Bailey is still convinced he’s been placed under “some sort of spell” by Clarence, his desperation mirrored in one of those dramatic Capra close-up shots of George’s face. It is a look of panic, of fear, of emotional discombobulation—quite the opposite of that upbeat close-up earlier in the movie, when Capra has his Wonder Boy freeze-frame while in pursuit of a suitcase so he can go travel the world. (“No, no, no, I, I, I wanna big one … .”)

Amid George’s chaos, Clarence is leaning on the mail box at the curb, holding his volume of “Tom Sawyer” in his hand. He then speaks the most profound line in the movie:
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

In short, we matter. We make a difference. We are the proverbial pebbles in the water, our ripples going so much farther than we think.

Clarence knows the only way to restore George to wholeness is to make him understand this. So, with what we can assume are his God-given powers, Clarence decides to take George back and show him what life would have him been like without him. Why? To remind him what life is like with him—the way his actions, words, and attitudes have affected those around him.

With George in the world, his brother Harry, as a Navy flier in World War II, saves an entire transport by shooting down fifteen planes, “two of them,” Joseph reminds us, “as they were about to crash into a transport full of soldiers.” Without George around to save Harry from falling in the ice in that opening scene, all those men died.

With George in the world, family, friends—heck, the community at large—are upbeat, productive, unselfish people. (A little far-fetched, sure, but plenty of inspiring movies stretch the bounds of credibility here and there, so what’s a little schmaltz?)

With George in the world, Mr. Gower the druggist, despite his understandable emotional lapse after the death of his son, is happy and sober; without George, he’s a sad-hearted drunk who stumbles into Nick’s bar, so lacking in esteem that he feigns acceptance in playing the part of the town fool.

Without George, Ernie the cab driver, instead of being the chatty chauffeur, is estranged from his “wife and kid;” George’s mother is a sullen boarding-house manager with a heart as cold as the river her son just plunged into; and Nick is a joyless bartender who runs a place designed to “serve hard drinks … for men who want to get drunk fast.”

Clarence, it’s clear, was right: we make a huge difference and when we’re not around, we leave a terrible hole.

Without George having been around, Potter’s power corrupts Bedford Falls—make that Pottersville in the no-George world. Violet, we can assume, has teetered over the line from the more innocent town flirt to full-fledged prostitute (“we’ll wait for you, baby”—and probably not for a game of Monopoly). And Mary—well, librarians won’t be thrilled to know that without George to marry her, she becomes—in the reluctant words of Clarence—“an old maid” who “is about to close the library.” (As if had she become, say, an ax-murderer who got married, things might not have been quite so bad.)

Forgive Capra’s subtle sexism; he was a product of his times. And forgive his head-scratching decision to have a library still open until late on a Christmas Eve. Really? The bigger idea here is that in God’s vast universe we matter, that our actions change the actions of others. And when we’re not around, we’re missed.

If viewers of the movie take nothing more away from the film than that, their 132 minutes of viewing will have been time well spent.