National Opinions

Mary Bailey is the true hero of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

it's a wonderful life

Hark! I bring you glad tidings, and also the only correct interpretation of the granddaddy of all Christmas classics, which every American must, by law, catch a snippet of each holiday season.

Are you ready?

Mary Bailey is the true hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

This is not how the movie is billed. The hero is supposed to be Mary’s husband, George Bailey, a tortured Boy Scout-type played by Jimmy Stewart who longs for travel and adventure even while duty keeps him stuck in the fictional hamlet of Bedford Falls. “It’s a Wonderful Life” takes place one Christmas Eve when George’s daffy uncle misplaces a deposit for the family’s financial institution: George must reckon with the potential ruination of the business while struggling to figure out whether his life and work have any worth at all. There are a lot of flashbacks. There’s a guardian angel. The movie ends with the whole town rallying to celebrate George and douse him with literal buckets of money.

Disregard all of this. Deck the halls with Donna Reed.

When, in one flashback, a market crash threatens to sink the Bailey Building & Loan, whose idea is it to donate George and Mary’s honeymoon funds to keep things afloat? Not George’s. Panicked customers are storming the lobby when Mary shows up with fistfuls of cash.

When George wants to throw rocks at an abandoned house, it’s Mary who suggests they restore the house instead.

The film’s final, triumphant scene is only made possible because while George’s genius plan to correct his uncle’s error involves jumping off a bridge for the life insurance policy, Mary is racing around town rustling up donations.

“Mary Bailey invented GoFundMe,” observes a pro-Mary partisan on Twitter.

Yes, I did go trawl the internet to see if I was the only one harboring these feelings of appreciation for Mary ... and no, I emphatically am not.

“It’s a Wonderful Life is the story of Mary Bailey, who twice saves her husband’s floundering business, pulls him back from the brink of suicide/jail, and raises four children while successfully gut-rehabbing a historic home,” observes another member of Team Mary.

“Mary Bailey is the true hero of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ " says Caleb Norris, a film buff with whom I chatted about our shared Mary devotion. “And some mopey man gets all the glory.”

Mary deals with the same leaky roof and small-town limitations as her husband with one major difference: She never complains. She doesn’t need an angel named Clarence to descend from heaven and inform her that she’s actually led a wonderful life. She knows intuitively that wonderful lives are not made by collecting passport stamps or military honors; they are made by investing in the community around you and wallpapering the bejesus out of an old Victorian.

“Why must you torture the children?” she asks George when he takes out his foul work-mood on the family. Why indeed? She’s the one who’s been home all day with a sick toddler and a clanging piano.

Does “It’s a Wonderful Life” realize that Mary is its hero? It does not. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, the angel Clarence gives George a glimpse of how his town would have fared if George had never been born. It’s bad. A slumlord has taken over the neighborhoods. A platoon of soldiers never came home from the war. And Mary? Clarence tells him, with horror, that she’s “just about to close up the library.”

That’s right: In an alternate reality in which half of Bedford Falls has been turned into a cemetery, the movie suggests that the saddest thing of all is that Mary Bailey became a librarian.

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: The entire movie celebrates the personal sacrifices of a nice man while ignoring the identical sacrifices of a nice woman. Why? Because “It’s a Wonderful Life” assumes something that society assumed in the 1940s and sometimes continues to assume to this day: A wife is supposed to sacrifice, buck up, make do, slog through. But when the husband does it, the whole town must take note.

I cannot express how much I love this movie, which I watch multiple times every year, and have since childhood. I hope you love it, too. But the next time you sit down with Frank Capra’s classic, please indulge me with one experimental viewing, in which you let your eye drift slightly off-center and fall on the true hero of the story.

Merry Christmas. It’s Mary’s Christmas.

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Monica Hesse

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post's Style section and author of "American Fire."