The official Christmas season begins this month and along with celebrating the birth of my Lord by trampling each other to save 20% on an Xbox at Wal-Mart while supplies last, it also means the airing of Frank Capra’s iconic 1946 holiday film It’s A Wonderful Life.
For years I watched this movie and like many Americans would come away with that warm fuzzy feeling. But one character in this film always bothered me. In fact, I believe that the more appropriate title of Capra’s project should have been It’s A Wonderful Life – If You’re Harry Bailey! Think about it. George Bailey’s kid brother makes out like a bandit in this flick. And why is that? Because Harry (Todd Karns) throughout this film is a steam-roller of selfishness. I will even go so far as to say that Harry Bailey (who was never intended to be a bad guy) is one of the most despicable characters in movies. In scriptwriting it’s formulaic that two villains be created to inject multiple layers of conflict. Obviously Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is the uber-villain. But who’s the other antagonist? That would be Harry Bailey, who plays his older brother for a sucker throughout the film. In fact, Harry is either directly or indirectly the root cause of all of George’s miseries.
From a young age Harry seems to conspire to keep George (Jimmy Stewart) pinned down in Bedford Falls, freeing him to fulfill his own dreams while leaving his older brother’s aspirations in a broken heap. As a child he falls through the ice compelling George to jump into the freezing water to save him and lose hearing in one ear for his heroics.
Later, after their father dies suddenly, a deal is struck whereby George surrenders his college money to Harry. The idea is that when Harry graduates he’ll come back and take over the family business, freeing George to once and for all leave Bedford Falls behind. For four years George stays shackled to their father’s Bailey Building & Loan, a small and wholly unfulfilling enterprise he despises, all the while counting down the days of Harry’s return while planning his future travels abroad.
But when the big day comes what does slippery Harry do? After letting his brother sacrifice his best years to honor the deal, Harry comes home and announces: “Meet the wife!” Whuuuh? No wedding? Why not even a telegram? There’s a reason for Harry’s secrecy of course. George learns through Harry’s new bride that he’s already lined up a sweet job with her father’s company. In a brazen demonstration of sleaziness, Harry pulls George aside and says all guilt-ridden: “You’ve been holding the bag here for four years…and, well, I won’t let you down, George. I would like to talk—” Whamo! The older Bailey’s face reveals a man whose soul is ripped out and splattered onto the floor. Great brother, huh? He springs a heretofore unknown wife on an unsuspecting George and uses her presence to renege on their deal after four years of expectations that his purgatory was at an end. George reluctantly stays at the Bailey B &L. Harry, with his his degree in hand (the one originally intended for George remember) is free to move onward and upward and live a wonderful life.
One would think the advent of Word War II finally gives George a chance to see the world right? Even if in uniform at least adventure calls. Bzzzz! Sorry. He’s got that bum ear and thus is 4-F. America’s mobilizing millions of her citizens and shipping them off to all parts of the globe George so desperately wants to explore…but because his good ol’ kid brother was dumb enough to slip through the ice, he’s outta luck…left behind to fight the battle of Bedford Falls.
To add insult to injury, Harry, his ears intact, goes off to fight the war in the most exciting of fashions as a Navy fighter pilot. Naturally he wins the Congressional Medal Of Honor (did we expect less?) while George frantically races around Bedford Falls looking for the eight grand that his dimwitted Uncle Billy – who was supposed to be working for Harry at this point remember – allowed to be stolen right out from under him by Potter. It happened because Billy (Thomas Mitchell) is so distracted from bragging to Potter about the exploits of, you guessed it, Harry Bailey, that he moronically leaves the money in the old man’s lap and walks off. Harry strikes again.
In the end, when everything works out okay and George doesn’t get arrested for fraud, Harry Bailey offers a toast: “To my big brother George…the richest man in town.” For now. One wonders how long that will last before Harry pulls another self-centered stunt that will certainly benefit him at that same big brother’s expense.
Don’t let that smile fool you Georgie boy. Harry just probably wants something from you.