‘Mary sees the big man in George from the first, because she is a big woman.’
From The Bulwark, writer Clare Coffey offers an insight into It’s a Wonderful Life that is, itself, wonderful:
From the beginning, it is Mary who chooses George, not the other way around. In a scene from their childhood, she sits on the counter and whispers in his bad ear, “George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die,” while George, oblivious, drones on about coconuts. Reunited at the high school dance, her eyes fix on him with the loving, predatory gleam of a wifely panther. Throughout their strange, bittersweet courtship, it is she who chases him, as much as Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? George, for his part, is as outraged, as protesting, as ultimately helpless as any of his counterparts. It is a screwball chump-chase transposed into the register of drama, with George playing the part of the chump.
Mary could marry any man in town. She doesn’t want to. She wants George. She takes the measure of George, seeing something in him that he can’t see, and which is perhaps only partially visible to us. What Mary sees in him does not reflect any of the abortive visions George has for himself.
It is Mary who sees the potential of the old house from the first, Mary who acquires it and patiently restores it over the years. It is Mary who sees the oncoming bank run as well as its solution, Mary who offers up their honeymoon money without wasting time either asking for permission or indulging in regrets. George’s life is shaped by a recurring characteristic act: the heroic acquiescence to duty when circumstances require it. But Mary sees the greater vision from the start. She is determined that George will lasso the moon, even if she is the only one who can see it in the sky.
It is certainly pleasant but not unduly extraordinary to be a popular and beautiful woman who can marry a rich and popular man if she chooses. It is less ordinary to see, with Mary’s perfect clarity and uncanny certainty, the life and man you want, and to choose it in the teeth of discouragement with all its disadvantages apparent, to persist single-mindedly in the face of hardship. It’s a Wonderful Life is, in part, the story of someone becoming, kicking and screaming, against all intentions and desires, a big man. Mary sees the big man in George from the first, because she is a big woman.
Read it all. And you just might see the movie with new eyes.