in: Character, Featured, Manly Lessons

• Last updated: July 11, 2023

Lessons in Manliness from It’s a Wonderful Life

Vintage family portrait.

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.

Listen to our podcast about Jimmy Stewart’s WWII service:

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.

Check out this different take on lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life: George Bailey’s Life of Quiet, Senseless Desperation

Also, check out the power of The George Bailey Effect.

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