Lessons in Manliness from It’s a Wonderful Life

by Brett on December 21, 2008 · 18 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness


Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Harland Pond.

It’s that time of year again. Navigating social dangers at holiday work parties. Fighting extra calories off. Picking out the perfect present for your girl. Of course it is also the season of holiday movies.  From old classics like Rudolph to newer ones like Elf, movies help get us in the holiday spirit, and their endless play on television signals the arrival of the Christmas season. Of course there is no more beloved Christmastime flick than the manly classic, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Of course, “manly” is not a word typically associated with the film, especially given the fact that more than one man will find himself teary eyed and avoiding eye contact with his wife at its conclusion. But the film has a good deal to teach us about being a man, the right kind of man. So in the spirit of quality Christmas movies, I offer you a quick guide to manliness, as taught by It’s a Wonderful Life.

  • Be a hero where you stand - This is the thread that weaves through George Bailey’s life. Saving his brother in the icy water. Keeping Mr. Gower from poisoning a child. Saving the Building & Loan multiple times. But it is the small things that make the hero; Bailey’s dedication to help others who are down on their luck is the true mark of his manliness.
  • Treat women well - At a key moment of their relationship, George visits Mary (Donna Reed) at her home and acts like a boor. Luckily, this leads to a final acknowledgement of their love, and for the most part, George is an example of how to treat women well (despite some cultural changes). Despite human, stressful outbursts, he loves his wife, and remains true to her in temptation. He takes care of his mother and even treats Violet (a woman with a dulled reputation) like gold, as a real man should – without taking advantage.
  • Love your family/family fidelity – In spite of his frustration and dreams, George honors his father’s work and keeps the Savings & Loan running. With a drafty house, sick kids, low wages, work stresses, and a normal man’s frustrations, he loves and supports his family. Is it easy? Heck no. But he comes through.
  • Facilitate others’ success – Helping people move out of the slums. Investing in the little people. Sacrificing for his brother Harry’s success. George’s dedication to his brother’s success is truly touching. The richness of George’s legacy lies in how he touched others’ lives and made them better for it, quietly sacrificing to improve the lot of those around him.
  • Stand up for what is right – Bailey’s morals may be simple common sense, but he lives them and fights for them. This is perhaps seen best when George strongly turns down Mr. Potter’s lucrative offer for everything he ever wanted: success, travel, luxury and security for his family, just to maintain the honor of his name. “I don’t need 24 hours!” he tells the man.
  • Know your faults and correct them – Of course our protagonist is not perfect. When facing personal failure, he is particularly prone to outbursts towards those with whom he is closest. And it takes a strong woman to keep him straight. He also has a knowable weakness for luxury and a misplaced view of himself and life. But George tries to lift himself above it, and in the end – with a little help from a different point of view and an angel named Clarence – he finds in himself what is beautiful in life.
  • Live your life with gratitude - Life is not measured in salaries, homes, trips, cars or Facebook friends. But it is truly measured in those moments when we love and touch others’ lives. Family and friends. Time and love. It may be sappy, but on your deathbed you won’t be looking to hold the hand of your Porsche.

Finally, it is not just the fictional character of George Bailey that provides valuable lessons in manliness; the real life of the film’s star, my personal acting hero, Jimmy Stewart, does as well. Jimmy epitomized the ideals of a gentleman. He took his responsibility to fight in WWII seriously and flew untold missions over Germany in a B-24 (retiring as a Brigadier General from the US Air Force). Known as a kind and soft-spoken guy, Stewart was discrete and chivalrous in his Hollywood relationships and remained humble despite his great success (his only Oscar stood in his father’s hardware store for years). As a philanthropist,  lifelong Boy Scout (Silver Buffalo winner), loving father of 4 (adoptive father too), and a devoted husband for 45 years, Stewart was a man boys could look up to and other men could seek to emulate. President Truman said of him, “If Bess and I had a son, we’d want him to be just like Jimmy Stewart.” His last words were of his wife, “I’m going to be with Gloria now.” You couldn’t ask for a better man example. If you want another example of Stewart working his holiday magic, watch his touching portrayal in Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.

Bonus lesson: Oh yeah, and it’s ok for a grown man to cry.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christy December 22, 2008 at 6:24 am

Great article…gave me goosebumps, especially the part about the importance of touching other people’s lives. I have to say as a writer myself, very, very, very well written!!

2 Arick December 22, 2008 at 6:40 am

It’s a Wonderful Read! George Bailey and his fight against demons of self worth (or lack thereof) is a classic. Who can ever forget the exuberance Bailey shows upon his return to his family? It demonstrates all the characteristics that real men have and show. Thank you for the read.

May we all be so lucky as Capra’s Bailey family.

3 Lin Burress December 22, 2008 at 7:44 am

It’s a Wonderful Life is by far the best classic Christmas movie of all time. Such a heartwarming story with so many important messages about the importance of family and making our families our number one priority. I can watch this Christmas movie over and over and never tire of it.

4 Christine the Soccer Mom December 22, 2008 at 8:31 am

This is my favorite movie of all time, and I wind up writing about it every year simply because I learn something new every year. I’ve got two blogs and have even spread the wealth, finding lessons for all parts of life from it. Most of all, though, I find a great example of living the vocation you’ve been given even when it’s difficult and not what you expected. In this time when “I’m not being fulfilled” seems to be a reason to dump a husband or wife, George and Mary are shining examples of fidelity and love.

I’ve posted about the movie here and here.

5 Christine the Soccer Mom December 22, 2008 at 8:32 am

Sorry, those links didn’t work. Maybe I need to brush up on my HTML.

Try here and here.

6 Craig R. December 22, 2008 at 11:09 am

Although I enjoyed your essay I must add another viewpoint. I love this movie and believe it is one of the greatest films of all time- but not because it offers simple, hard working George Bailey as a role model. But because it tells us the dark side of American greed, fear, and self -repression that I think became more clear in post-war America. This is James Stewart’s first movie after being a well -honered colonel in the Air Force. In every aspect of his performance Stewart is showing how much of a better actor he was now that he had seen real war and committed real killing. It is that dark side that we see in this film( the way he will show it in his westerns with Anthony Mann and Hitchcock ) and that dark hints at a new American underbelly.

Capra could be dark ( Meet John Doe comes to mind) and the world after the war is dark. George is a boy when we first meet him and in some ways he is still a boy at the end. He is a hopeless dreamer, has no impluse control, and can’t seem to ever just get out of town of his own speed. He is not brave, wise, or enpowered by his actions. Life happens to George- George doesn’t happen to life. He is poor. He lives in the shadow of regret and disappointment. He has no real future and no great past. He is also at the mercy of kindness, which I think comes from a great insecurity that Stewart hints at time and time again. He can’t even kill himself with any proper sense of honor.

It is only the Christmas opening and the last fifteen minutes that make us feel that George is great and brave. Capra was trying to be uplifting. But here are the facts: 1. Potter never gives back the money. 2. There is no promise that the next day will be better for George or his family. 3. There is also no hint that Potter or his kind won’t take over the town.

If you want to see great things in George Bailey please do. But I kindly ask that you see the shadows and noir that surround him as well. They are as American as he is.

7 Derek December 22, 2008 at 11:33 am

I tend to agree with Craig…who puts it much better than I ever could. The NYT recently had a interesting article on the “dark side” of this film:


8 Christine the Soccer Mom December 22, 2008 at 11:51 am

While I certainly agree that there are dark aspects to George’s life, and he has to work through the aspects of his life he dislikes, I see this film more about the transformation of George. His love deepens from one that is resentful (doing good for others at his own expense, yet being angry about this situation) to one where he sees the benefits for all through his sacrifices.

And, let’s face it, the world can be a dark place where evil goes unpunished. Yet George, even when resentful of his situation, does not give in to the evil that seems to surround him. He remains faithful to his wife. He loves his neighbor. He does his best to provide for his family – brother and mother included.

In short, he lives out his vocation, hard as it may be, and learns to even love it through divine intervention.

Life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine, and even if George is “stuck” where he is, his life has tremendous value. He is a greater success than Potter could ever dream of being, especially at the end of our peek into his life when he realizes that his life has value, poor as it might seem.

Poverty is not a crime, and living in poverty with the kind of grace George and Mary display is a beautiful thing. Their poverty is only the monetary kind. They really are, as Harry puts it, the richest people in town.

9 Craig R. December 22, 2008 at 12:24 pm

Christine- While I respect what you have said- I have one objection-”Poverty is not a crime, and living in poverty with the kind of grace George and Mary display is a beautiful thing. ” There is never any grace in being poor in America, or any place else for that matter, and only rich , happy people – who wants to excuse themselves from the ills of proverty- would make it seem like a decent, noble thing. Being middle class is a comfort level that a great many Americans take for granted. If you had to worry about your next meal, or a child getting sick or the safety of your surroundings you would find it hard to be graceful. Grace is status that very few people can enjoy.

10 Christine the Soccer Mom December 22, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Craig, I understand where you’re coming from, but poor people have the capability to be happy. And not feel put-upon. Americans have very few people who are actually poor, if you think about it. And I am certainly not saying that there is an excuse for those deemed as “rich” to ignore the plight of our poorer brethren!

However, I’ve come to understand that there is something to be gained through our sufferings, whether they be lack of money or lack of good health. It’s difficult to explain, but my Catholic brethren might have a better grasp of it than I or even just instinctively know what I mean. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had little money, and situations where I was in very poor health. When I understood that I can gain graces in such situations, that I could offer up my suffering (to use the old Catholic phrase for it), these sufferings were far more bearable.

I really think that the focus on what is deemed the darker sides of this movie discount that there is more to life than getting money and getting out of a small town to see the world. Love of neighbor and George’s cherishing of his family make him far richer than our society would readily admit. I have friends who just returned from Guatamala with their newly-adopted son who saw people who were incredibly poor, living in dangerous surroundings, with little to no creature comforts that you and are are used to. And yet those people were kind, friendly, and happy in life. They lived with grace.

Grace is a status that anyone can enjoy. Grace is freely given, and only only need to seek out that grace in every day life. The key is knowing Who to ask for such graces!

11 Harland December 22, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Craig & Christine –
I really appreciated your comments. There is so much to enjoy from the film beyond just the feel good movie. And yes, the harsh impact of the war on Stewart is evident on this and future films. I think that the Stewart had little choice but include his personal character in his roles, and you see in the change of George the same thing in Stewart. An almost redemtive action to try and outlive the dark (noir) parts of life.
I do think both of you are right – and the dark stuff, the fact that a man can work his whole life and never “achieve” anything of monetary value or richness is what makes him a better character and of course an excellent example. I try to awknowledge this and the imperfection in my notes. Wendell Jamieson’s NYT notes are interesting, although I believe are painted in a somewhat bitter, Potter-esque view of life where we count success as stock points and saved dollars. Many of us will live our lives ‘trapped’ to some degree by circumstances, but the choice to be happy, the choice of proactivity and the choice to life that “wonderful life” is what makes one manly.
Perhaps this is why there is so much rumor about Capra’s alternate ending with Potter getting what he deserved (or you can watch SNL’s version with WIlliam Shatner where Mary holds the walking Potter while George hits him). It’s hinted Capra wanted to film a sequel about the characters, perhaps offering a hint at the hope that goodness earns. But I like it where it lies. Because good did earn. It earned so many in Bedford Falls homes out of the slums. It earned the priceless, “free” things in life. And goodness knows good men don’t always get what they derseve – and so I think the point of living life in gratitude (being middle class) is a great lesson for the holiday.

12 Chris December 22, 2008 at 6:28 pm

It’s a Wonderful Life is truly a great film.

And i totally agree with the fact that Jimmy Stewart was a great man himself. He’s definitely one of my heroes and role models, he’s a class act through and through. Definitely my favorite actor of all times as well as one of my favorite human beings.

13 George December 23, 2008 at 12:02 pm

First, I can never see another movie ever replacing It’s a Wonderful Life as my favorite. I hate to say it, but I think it truly changed my life and possibly saved it given my own state when I stumbled upon the movie.

I couldn’t help but notice the prior comments about poverty and poverty in the America. I think you may want to watch the movie again. While they had a roof over their head, the luxury of a piano, and he worked at a bank, it certainly doesn’t indicate he was middle-class either. He drove an old car with mechanical issues, lived in a formerly abandoned home, couldn’t afford any “decent clothes” for his kids to wear to school, and the bank (which didn’t get bail-outs in those days) was broke. So, yes, he was worried about where his next paycheck and his family’s next meal would come from. That, my friend, generally is poverty “in America” for those who do not have a heroin addiction. And you can thank God for it.

14 Jeremy December 23, 2008 at 2:08 pm

George was a real man because he had to make the hard decisions. Sometimes being a man is doing something you hate just because it’s the right thing to do. Years later you may find out it was the right choice and the choice that made you the happiest and was best for you. George finds this out at the end of the movie.

A few random lines I recall from scenes where George had to and did make the manly decision despite his conflicting dreams and goals:

“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!” -George marries Mary, gives up his dream of bachelorhood and the free life.
“But George, they’ll vote with Potter otherwise!” -George gives up his dream of higher education…forever to save the BB&L.
“It’s purely mercenary, I’ll tell you. Father offered Harry a job.” George sees his last hope to get out of B.F. slipping away when Harry gets married, but he tells Harry to take the job.
“Hey! I got 2,000 dollars. How much do you need?” Gives up his honeymoon to save peoples’ investment in the BB&L.
“I don’t need 24 hours” turns down Potter’s rich-lifestyle offer on moral grounds.

I am sure there are a lot more than I can think of right now.

15 Cindy Sue Causey December 25, 2008 at 4:18 am

Found you a little bit ago, goodness only knows now from whither.. Love this piece, in particular where you highlighted Violet as part of how to treat women.. That was cool..

Will be sharing along the way when opportunity presents..

Cyber hugs from North Georgia, USA.. :)

16 R Noessel December 25, 2008 at 7:50 am

In regards to Jimmy Stewart – he kept in touch every year with a Christmas card to those he served with in World War 2. I happen to know this as my brother was in the army for many years and one Christmas I spent with him we visited some army friends of his. I was looking at Christmas cards displayed on the mantel and one of them was signed Jimmy Stewart. I wondered if this was THE Jimmy Stewart and I was told that the man whose house I was in had served with Mr. Stewart during WW2 and every year received a card from him.
I have always remembered what a kind gesture this was and a showing of gratitude on Mr. Stewart’s part for men who served in WW2.

17 Phil August 7, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Great post (which I wish I’d found sooner) – an excellent portrayal of why this is my absolute favorite movie of all time. Thanks…

18 Thom December 4, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Great article and great comments. Thank you all!

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