So, George stays in Bedford Falls and gives his travel and college money to his little brother Harry.
Harry, goes to university and becomes a football star.
George gets married to to a childhood sweetheart, and stays in Bedford Falls.
Harry meets a young woman from the big city whose father offers him a high-paying job in research and development—a job that will make him rich and give him opportunity to travel the world.
George and Mary have 4 children and struggle to make ends meet.
Harry goes to war as an Air Force pilot and wins a medal of honor for saving the lives of hundreds on a transport ship.
George can’t go to war due to a bad ear, from the time he saved Harry from drowning in a frozen lake as a child.
Harry and George’s friends all go on to do big and shiny things, make money, travel the world…all the things George dreamed of doing.
George stays in Bedford Falls, daily struggling against Mr. Potter. He builds small, modest homes for people who may or may not ever be able to fully pay him back. George wonders why Mary ever married someone like him…the man who never did anything important or noteworthy.
All this time Mr. Potter is scheming for a way to destroy George Bailey. A few days before Christmas Eve 1945, Mr. Potter offers George a job with a good salary and opportunity to travel. It’s an ingenious plan—distract George from all the good he is doing by offering to him something he has always wanted. George nearly jumps at the chance, but then sees the plan for what it is.
Furious, Mr. Potter has had enough. He takes advantage of the carelessness of one of George’s employees and steals $8000 from the Building and Loan. When George can’t make his payment to the bank, Mr. Potter issues a warrant for the arrest of George Bailey on grounds of embezzlement and fraud.
And here we find George on the bridge on Christmas Eve, ready to throw himself into the freezing waters. And he does. And just at that moment Clarence, a rather homely angel from heaven… jumps into the river to save him.
[I’m not going to discuss any theology of angels or guardian angels today…through I’m pretty sure there’s no Biblical basis for the idea that “every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings…sorry if I ruined that for you. In the movie, however, Clarence is trying to earn his wings…he’s been waiting 293 years for the opportunity].
Clarence’s solution to help George is the allow George to see what the world would have been like had he not been born. In this vision, or dream, or alternate reality the world is a very different place. Because George was not there, when his father died Potter took over and owned nearly the entire town. Bedford Falls, becomes a sin-laden town filled with bars and prostitutes and violence…a real “sin city.”
George’s wife, Mary, never married.
None of George’s friends in town know who he is when he walks around town with Clarence.
The people who lived in the homes he had built are out of work and living on the street—unhappy living in the dark shadow of Mr. Potter.
The home George and his wife and children lived is an abandoned old home that hasn’t been lived in for decades, and Zuzu’s pedals are nowhere to be found.
The true moment of shock, however, is when George walks through the cemetery and sees his brother Harry’s tombstone, showing that he had died at age 9. When George refuses to believe that his brother is dead, Clarence responds:
CLARENCE: “Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.”
GEORGE: “That’s a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport [ship]. “
CLARENCE: “Every man on that transport [ship] died. Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry. You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”
George begs Clarence for his life back, and when he returns home he finds his children and his wife. Mary has told everyone she knows about that $8000 that is missing and everyone in town comes pouring into the Bailey house emptying their wallets, coin purses, and even the jukebox, to help George. They know George, they like George, and they trust George. They know the time and energy he has put into them, and into their homes, and into their town. They know he loves them by the way he has lived his life….and they love him for it.
Finally…and this is the part that brings a tear every year. I sit through nearly three hours of this movie just to watch this final scene…just for these final five minutes. In the closing minutes of the movie, we learn that Harry Bailey, George’s little brother, has cut short his dinner with the President of the United States, to fly in a blizzard back to Bedford Falls, to come and see his brother in his time of need.
He comes into the home covered in snow, grabs a glass and makes a toast. Harry, who did big and shiny things with his life. Harry, the war hero who eats with the President. Harry, who benefitted from his big brothers decision to stay. Harry, whose name everyone knows, who name is the headline of the local newspaper. Harry lifts his glass to his brother and says…
“To my big brother, George, the richest man in town!”
Then the credits begin to roll…
Thanks for reading!