Three times George Bailey enters the water fully clothed, and each time it scrambles his world. The first dive occurs when he rescues his little brother Harry from a crack in the ice. He falls ill and loses hearing in his left ear, which will later prevent him from fighting in World War II. Then when George is twenty-one, he meets his future wife Mary at a high school dance and the two are so enamored of each other that they jitterbug their way into the gym pool.
And thirdly, of course, George leaps off a Bedford Falls bridge on Christmas Eve, trying to save the angel that will eventually renew his lost faith in himself.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a story about valuing what’s near. Like another nominally Christmas-themed movie from the forties, Meet Me in St. Louis, it reminds us that there’s nothing wrong with sticking close to home; there’s even something noble in letting your roots quest deeper into the dirt. Three separate life-altering dives might seem like a lot of plunging for a landlocked small-town character in a movie about the sanctity of friends and family. But it makes perfect sense within the grammar of the film because throughout It’s a Wonderful Life, the screen, like a human body, is nearly two-thirds water.
There’s water in Mr. Gower’s drugstore, where George works as a young man. When he confronts his boss about a mistaken prescription that would poison the patient, the scene is obscured by rows of Gower’s liquid ingredients. In a long conversation with his dad where George expresses his ambitions to travel and “build things,” the two men stare at each other over a conspicuous, yet untouched, glass of water. And before they even finish eating, the maid Annie comes to deliver two steaming teacups. That’s a keen bit of foreshadowing, since a minute later, when Mary makes her first appearance, she’s mid-sip. Apparently she needed a coffee despite being in a crowded gymnasium on a warm spring night.
Naturally this woos poor George, whose dreams are consistently water-based and consistently thwarted. When approached romantically by Violet, the vampy but sensitive blonde who’s had a crush on George since they were kids, George meets her offer and then some: “Let’s go up to the falls,” he yearns, “It’s beautiful there in the moonlight. There’s a green pool…” But Violet’s already frightened away. He might as well be Thoreau. Around this time another peer refers to “old mossback George,” forever tied to the family Building & Loan business and unable to leave Bedford Falls. In case you’re not up on thirties slang: “noun \ˈmȯs-ˌbak\ 1 : a large sluggish fish (as a largemouth bass).”
As a boy he wanted to go to Fiji. For his honeymoon with Mary the plans change, but only just—they’re headed to Bermuda. Any island will do. On their wedding day it pours. The rain is relentless as George steps out of their airport-destined taxi and follows a mob into the Building & Loan. There’s been a run on the bank and George and Mary will have to use their honeymoon funds to bail everyone out. A call comes in from money-grubbing Mr. Potter who, in a brief long shot of his cavernous home, we see keeps at least four separate fires burning: one in the hearth, three in lanterns above his head.
Selfless George saves the day by ruining his. But his friends conspire to turn the dilapidated mansion at 320 Sycamore into a makeshift honeymoon. They put up travel posters for Florida and the South Seas, Mary prepares a warm dinner, and George enters to the sound of a luau record playing gently over the rain. The setup is lovely even though water is leaking through the roof and pouring down the stairwell. It drips into their champagne bucket and fills George’s hat brim.
George walks through that same door on his fateful Christmas Eve, right as Harry is due back home after winning the Congressional Medal of Honor for shooting Nazi planes into the sea. Mary is once again finishing some extravagant decorating. Before, George had a hat and coat; this night he’s left them at the office and Mary has to brush the snow from his head. “It’s just started,” he tells her. On their honeymoon, 320 Sycamore was barely a tent but it felt like paradise; on Christmas Eve, it’s the picture of holiday cheer yet George can’t believe how cold it is: “I don’t know why we don’t all have pneumonia…This drafty old barn, it’s like living in refrigerator.”
By the time George decides to end it all, the snow in Bedford Falls is incapacitating. Near the bridge it’s so thick that a truck struggles through a curve. You can hardly see the image onscreen. George’s mouth is bloodied after being slugged in his friend Martini’s bar. (Of all the fictional Italian names, the screenwriters chose a drink.) Then in leaps Clarence, and George goes after him. They take refuge in a bridge worker’s nearby office, where their sopping clothes hang on a line in the foreground and steam coils out of their mugs. The bridge worker is perched next to a spittoon.
“I wish I’d never been born.” That’s the line that gets Clarence thinking, and when he grants the wish, the first noticeable change is the disappearance of water: their clothes are dry, George’s lip blood is gone, all the steam in the room evaporates. And the snow stops. As if sensing the drought, George announces, “What I need’s a couple of good stiff drinks.”
They head to Martini’s, now known as Nick’s. That’s not the only name rendered liquidless in this nightmare: the town is now Pottersville rather than Bedford Falls. The only water we see in Pottersville is harsh and cruel: Nick serves “hard drinks for men who want to get drunk fast” and has no time for Clarence’s order of mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon. He then sprays seltzer in the face of Mr. Gower, who in this world is a derelict and child murderer, since George wasn’t around to prevent him from dispensing poison.
Every character has turned out worse without George, some of them cartoonishly so. Mary is a spinster librarian, Violet an irascible nightclubber, and all that’s left of Harry is a tombstone marked “1911–1919.” The dominant decay at 320 Sycamore is cobwebs, not rain. These changes are the crux of the movie. This unlikely marriage of A Christmas Carol and Winesburg, Ohio espouses that people turn out good or bad based on the kindness shown to them, not because of any innate qualities in themselves. In the same way that water can be snow or tea, flood or steam, a person’s fate hinges on the climate. And like water, the people in your life can drown you or save you depending on the context.
George returns to real life by running back to the bridge and begging out loud, “I want to live.” The flurries start again and he goes running home to his kids, who hang on him like the snow he drags in on his coat and hair. Then another kind of deluge begins: the whole town streams in, filling the house with laughter and cascading dollar bills. Everyone’s hat is covered with white powder. “Mr. Martini,” Mary calls, “how about some wine?” It’s Harry, recently arrived after flying through a blizzard, who raises his glass and toasts his brother, “the richest man in town.” The music switches from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to “Auld Lang Syne.” And the last thing we see onscreen is old mossback George with bloody lip and wet hair, beaming between his wife daughter, pledging gratefully to “drink a cup of kindness yet.”
Most viewers will have long been filling tissues by now, the intended response to this peculiarly waterlogged tearjerker. Crying at It’s a Wonderful Life is an essential part of watching it. It’s our own little cleansing plunge to mirror George’s. So we dab away all those times we looked at snow and only saw an obstruction, those moments when we wanted Fiji so badly that we hated Bedford Falls. From now on, we want to live.
John Lingan’s writing has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Awl, and other places. He’s working on a memoir about becoming a father in college. Follow him at @busybeinglingan.