No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends

No man is a failure who has friends. Clarence’s parting observation to George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is good advice for all of us on Christmas Eve. Watching  “It’s A Wonderful Life” has become a Christmas tradition in our family in recent years: it’s one of the few black and white movies my boys will watch. And tonight was no exception.  

Harry Bailey’s Heroism is Made Possible by George

George: You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? Anchor chains, plan motors, and train whistles.

Clarence: I know. I know. He didn’t go.

Joseph: That’s right. Not only that, but he gave his school money to his brother Harry, and sent him to college. Harry became a football  star–made second team All American.

I hadn’t really appreciated that it’s George who enables his brother’s fame and later heroism. George follows in his father’s footsteps at the building and loan, and sacrifices his own schooling and travel plans so that his brother can become a “genius at research” and later win the Congressional Medal of Honor. He takes pride in Harry’s accomplishments, and in helping to create Bedford Falls as a home for working class families. More generally, George gives himself credit, and takes pride in, the accomplishments he has enabled others to make. It’s when he temporarily loses sight of the fruits of his cultivation efforts that he despairs.

Looked at from another angle the more common movie or magazine or Silicon Valley profile would focus on the wealth and accomplishment of Potter or the exploits of Harry as athlete, war hero, and inventor. Yet at least some of Potter’s riches flow from the increase of wealth fostered by the Building and Loan and Harry would not have gone as far without George’s help. We can focus on the hero and lose sight of what enabled his achievements.

“The mature man lives quietly, does good privately, assumes personal responsibility for his actions, treats others with friendliness and courtesy, finds mischief boring and keeps out of it. Without this hidden conspiracy of good will,  society would not endure an hour.”
Kenneth Rexroth in his 1961 Introduction to Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God Is Within You

You see, George, you really had a wonderful life.

George has been turned away by his mother, who does not recognize him and slams the door to her rooming house in his face.

Clarence: Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?

George: I’ve heard of things like this. You’ve got me in some kind of a spell, or something. Well, I’m going to get out of it. I’ll get out of it. I know how, too. I . . . the last man I talked to before all this stuff started happening to me was Martini.

Clarence: You know where he lives?

George: Sure I know where he lives. He lives in Bailey Park.

George and Clarence approach the tree from which the "Bailey Park" sign once hung. Now it is just outside a cemetery, with graves where houses used to be.

Clarence: Are you sure this is Bailey Park?

George: I’m not sure of anything anymore. This should be Bailey Park. But where are the houses?

Clarence: You weren’t here to build them.

George wanders like a lost soul among the tombstones, stopping in front of a tombstone engraved "Harry Bailey." George scrapes away the snow covering the rest of the inscription to reveal:


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.

Clarence: Every man on that transport 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?

In addition to saving his brother’s life he saved Mr. Gower–and the boy who would have otherwise poisoned–and prevented Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville. As Thomas Carlyle observed, “The work of an unknown good man is like a vein of water flowing hidden in the underground, secretly making the ground greener.”

The Scene That Never Fails To Bring Tears To My Eyes

Various members of the family bring out a punch bowl and glasses; Janie sits at the piano and starts playing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." The entire crowd joins in the singing. Harry enters wearing his Naval uniform, accompanied by Bert the cop.

Harry: Hello, George, how are you?

George: Harry… Harry…

Bert: Mary, I got him here from the airport as quickly as I could. The fool flew all the way up here in a blizzard.

Mrs. Bailey: Harry, how about your banquet in New York?

Harry: I left right in the middle of it as soon as I got Mary’s telegram.

Ernie hands Harry a glass of wine.

Harry: Good idea, Ernie. A toast…to my big brother, George. The richest man in town!

Harry and George have very different strengths: Harry is decisive–football All American, inventor, war ace–while George is steadfast. When the town was panicked during the Depression George used his own money and powers of persuasion to keep the building and loan open and independent–and the town’s dreams alive. The town has a parade planned for Harry to recognize his accomplishments, but when they realize that George is in trouble they pray for him and bring in all of their spare cash to help cover the shortfall at the Building and Loan.

No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends

Once more the crowd breaks into cheering and applause. Janie at the piano and Bert on his accordion start playing "Auld Lang syne," and everyone joins in. George glances at the pile of money on the table. His eye catches something on top of the pile. It is Clarence's copy of "Tom Sawyer." George opens it and finds an inscription written in it:

“Dear George,
remember no man is a failure who has friends.
Thanks for the wings,
Love Clarence.”

Details as they collect in the corners and pockets of our lives, reminding us, like Zuzu’s petals, that it’s a wonderful life.

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