As it does most every year, It’s a Wonderful Life came up over dinner during Christmas time. My family and I (including its newest member) were sitting down having just finished a meal and turning on the television immediately brought us to this Welch Family favorite. As we all waxed on about how wonderful this movie is, we got into a discussion about what the Central Problem is in the film; what is it that drives this film narratively? Both my dad and brother offered up a solution which didn’t sit well with me.
What they proffered was that the Central Problem was suicide – George Bailey’s attempt to end his life being the narrative crux around which the whole film revolves. Now, I would be remiss and entirely unfounded to say that this moment is not the turning point of the film. Any viewer can see that all events prior lead up to it and all following happen because of it. However, for the purposes of this essay, I will challenge the notion that It’s a Wonderful Life is centered around an action and address what I perceive to be a general lack of depth in diagnosing the true problem of the film. Along the way, I will propose my own theory as to what the Central Problem is.
First, we must examine what a Central Problem is and what role it plays in the narrative of a film. Called alternately the “Throughline”, the Problem, the Main Question, and the Conflict, the Central Problem is an issue the protagonist or heroes are dealing with which defines the narrative purpose of the film. The problem can be a number of things and certainly has numerous causes – environmental, interpersonal, and internal. There are some who suggest that the major theme or narrative endgame are the most important facet of a film. Victoria Schmidt proposes just such a theory in her quintessential book Story Structure Architect, suggesting that one must first decide whether the hero will succeed or fail in his/her mission before launching into crafting the story. However, she unwittingly admits to the necessity of having the central conflict first: “Once you know the answer to this question [“What is the central conflict?”] you know how to design your story…” (emphasis mine, p.7). One cannot decide whether the hero will win or lose until the writer has decided what they are up against.
Allow me to give an example to make the point clear. In A New Hope, the Central Problem is external: an all-powerful Empire bearing down on even the smallest of planets. This Empire threatens the existence of a young boy with extraordinary powers, which inspires him to learn the ways of the Force, become a Jedi Master, and take on the evil Emperor. The later films deal with a more internal conflict (“Can I do this without giving in to the Dark Side?”, “How can I face my father?”). It is the central antagonism, the problem, which defines how the narrative works.
Now, what my family suggested was the Central Problem to Capra’s story was this: Suicide. At first it seems obvious. The narrative hinges on that point – everything prior leading up to it, all events following directly stemming from it. No question, it is the crux point of the film. However, I propose that there is a major flaw with this way of looking at the film.
Simply put, suicide is an Action, which is defined as a deliberately chosen exertion of a person with a purpose in mind. And while Stanislavski would say an actor must play by their parts an action, that action has to start with a motivation, some personal cause which drives them to move. An action is something which causes and is caused by a conflict; the inner decision leads to the outer endeavor.
Thus, suicide cannot be the Central Problem of the film. To say this would be to ignore the vast majority of the movie. How can an action set an hour and thirty-nine minutes in to the film be its driving problem? Something had to have led George down a long road to arrive at the edge of the bridge contemplating that fatal action.
Please understand that I am not saying suicide cannot be an important story incident, or even a Central Problem. In Little Miss Sunshine, Frank’s attempted suicide before the film begins is what spurs the family’s hyper-proximity and fuels their determination to help little Olive feel beautiful. Neil Perry’s suicide caps off Dead Poet’s Society, revealing his Central Problem of proving himself and following his own dreams. The action of suicide often reflects the conflict of the film, but of its own right it cannot be the exasperation that the chief characters deal with.
This, however, does not uncover what the larger issue is. As I have scoured reviews and analyses of It’s a Wonderful Life, what I found most often is a diagnosis of George Bailey’s psyche that fails to see the deepest issue, the thing I am calling the Central Problem of the film. In her examination of the Fatal Flaw, Dara Marks correctly identifies the heaping pressure of the community’s needs on George and how it drives him further towards his attempted demise. She makes statements that are so close to the mark: “Other aspects of George’s nature were suppressed or ignored and the only things that grew in their place were anger and resentment.” However, that is where Marks leaves it, falling just shy of the goal with “George’s limited perception of his own identity”. Lack of introspection is not the singular culprit.
As another example of more obvious misdiagnosis, Molly Kuenzi, a student with Wisconsin Lutheran College, posted an essay titled America’s Prayers: A Brief Discussion of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which she lays out an analysis concerning post-war mentality and Capra’s film. She falls into the easy pit of seeing this protagonist for what the film is labeling him as, rather than how he sees himself. Several times she calls attention to the “situation[s] of sacrifice for the common good” George is thrust into, and ultimately declares that “Clarence understands that George is a self-less [sic] person…”. This, I believe, is the most elementary trap to fall into when examining George Bailey. It is true that he is a self-sacrificing person, one who more often than not puts others in front of himself. However, I would say that is not something he is conscious of. Rather than argue, as Kuenzi says, that George “easily loses sight of where the true heroism rests—in the average man’s small life of sacrifice for others,” I will argue that George’s Central Problem is not one of losing sight, but rather one he needs to be awakened to.
Now we have arrived at the moment when I must lay my own cards out and express what the true, deepest Central Problem is in George Bailey’s wonderful life.
As I have said, I think most people get into the film and see the character from an external perspective (that of the angels), which shows us George’s true nature. However, this blinds them to his self-image, the way he perceives himself, which leads them to misdiagnose his problem. The answer is deceptively simply: it is Pride.
George Bailey is one of the proudest characters I have ever seen in a film. From the moment we meet him full grown (pictured above), he starts spouting his vast and wild ambitions, making a statement as much about his destiny as about his luggage – “I want a big one!” From then on, we watch as a man, who so desperately wants to live up to the proud image he has of himself, is continually rebuffed into a humble and self-sacrificing life.
Quotes throughout the film illustrate this internal vanity: “I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that”; “I don’t want any plastics, and I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married – ever – to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do”; “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world.”
All of this reveals that underneath the self-effacing visage of the eldest Bailey son lies a deep conflict with pride. This conceit, however, takes on the most remarkable quality which distinctly separates it from hubris. Cinema provides countless examples of characters struggling with pride as their Central Problem. Usually, however, they take the form of a protagonist at a height of influence slowly corrupting and toppling (Amadeus; A Few Good Men; Wall Street; The Great Gatsby), or of an up-and-comer who connives their way to the top only to receive divine comeuppance (Scarface; Sunset Blvd; Citizen Kane). In short, it is a common trope to use Hubris leading to a Fatal Flaw (as Dara Marks rightly shows) to tell certain kinds of stories very well.
However, what makes It’s a Wonderful Life a truly unique film is the fact that it centers on a proud protagonist who does not fall into hubris. George Bailey is a proud man, and yet his pride is constantly rebutted; all of his efforts find themselves at cosmically designed roadblocks which force him to show a side of himself he does not recognize. When his friend Sam Wainwright offers him a compliment about his work ethic, George takes it as a slight at his lack of success. And yet he truly has acted selflessly; he is just blinded to this fact by his own self-image.
In this way, constantly snubbing his vanity, George is found worthy by the divine beings to have himself awoken to this side of himself, not reminded of it as many claim. Clarence’s appearance is met with frustration and distrust, which slowly gives way to understanding and terror as the scales are taken off of George’s eyes to reveal his impact on the community. Thus, he is enabled to see past his pride (his vain vision of his destined impactful life) and for the first time be show that he has been acting in a virtuous manner and that he is actually a humble man underneath. Having rectified his dissatisfaction by redefining his priorities, Clarence and the Angels watch as George’s joy abounds, knowing he has finally seen (not finally remembered) his true essence.
Much has been said about the heavenly influence on Bailey’s life, and I think this only serves to take it a step further and show how even unanswered prayers can sometimes be the work of the Almighty to lead one to the best possible place, though this is admittedly a divergence from the topic at hand. Rather than falling into the oft-filled pitfall of hubristic characters, George Bailey’s true nature is suddenly unveiled to him despite his burning inner fire of pride. It is the rebutting of his hubris that ultimately makes him such an admirable character, and which earns him the divine action of salvation from a fate much like Salieri or Joe Gillis.
The source of this pride is a topic for another day, as is the odd form the world has cast on George because of Capra’s decision to tell the story from the angel’s perspective. What remains then is to return to the ideas established before and interpret them in light of this new vantage, knowing pride to be the driving force of It’s a Wonderful Life.
I have already shown how the action of suicide must be caused by some inner motivation, and I hope it now clear how George Bailey’s pride is exactly that which pushes him to the attempt. Again, I will acknowledge that the structure of the narrative hinges around that critical moment. However, it is the constant denial of his proud ambitions (right or otherwise) that leads George down the spiraling slope of depression, cynicism, and ultimately a nihilism which nearly proves fatal.
As for the reviewers, namely Dara Marks and Molly Kuenzi, I believe they fell for a few easy traps and saw the man for what the film was painting him as: a hero. Both reviews are very good for what they are specifically examining (the Fatal Flaw and Wartime mentality), but both are indicative of the commonplace misjudgement of George Bailey as a humble man who knows that he is so. It seems they get caught up in seeing the film from a holistic vantage, rather than from George’s, thus attributing to him traits which he is unaware he possesses. It seems clear to me that if he did know himself to be a selfless man and if he full appreciated the virtue of the trait, he would never have progressed to the point of suicide and the film would have had no purpose. Thus, reviewers who wax on about the generous and humble nature of George may do so, having completed the story and seen the awakening he has had. However, it is the task of the viewer to not get lost in knowing who Keyser Soze is while listening to Kevin Spacey tell us about him.
George Bailey is a fascinating blend of two opposite conflictions, wrapped up in one of the most difficult eras of American History. Having only just come home from the greatest war ever fought on planet Earth, returning veterans struggled to balance their insatiable pride for having come out on top, and the image of humble service cast upon them by their family and propaganda. Capra masterfully took this internal discord – which the rest of Hollywood had turned into the rise of Film Noir and defeatism – and told a story of a man who, despite dealing with pride, manages to live a model life, unwittingly inspiring his friends and neighbors as well as generations to follow.
The ending of the film reflects the marvelous release that occurs with a revelation that one’s actions and deeds have amounted to some great purpose. By removing his influence from the world, Clarence and the angels reveal to George how the influence of a common, no-skyscrapers-to-his-name guy can be so profoundly important. Thus, they satisfy his innermost desire to matter in the world – a desire which is deeply seated in pride – by un-blinding George and showing him the wonderful life he has already led.
Thus, with our hero properly diagnosed and standing at the proper place on the bridge for his divine revelation, ends the first of my twelve essays on the cinematic world. I welcome any feedback on the subject, be it about the Central Problem or about this film in particular. This has been quite a blessing to write and I cannot wait to continue growing as a critic. And this next one is going to be a doozy: confronting all of the Browncoats on the Internet and trying not to lose a friend or two on the other side.
Story Structure Architect; Victoria Lynn Schmidt; Writers Digest Books (2005)