The one thing you never noticed about ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’
In my house, it’s a family tradition to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, featuring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, on Christmas Day. Seriously, it’s the *perfect* holiday film, and it makes me cry every. Single. Time. But even though I’ve seen it dozens of times and could quote George Bailey forever and always, there’s one thing about the film that I never noticed. . . until my latest watch / cry-fest, that is. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with angels, although it certainly has to do with wings.
Have you ever wondered why a raven appears multiple times in the film? It goes unsaid throughout the movie, but it’s actually Uncle Billy’s pet — and IRL, the raven’s name was Jimmy. Jimmy appeared in over a thousand feature films and was included in It’s A Wonderful Life because director Frank Capra had a soft spot for him (in fact, he cast Jimmy in every film he made after 1938!).
But Capra’s adoration aside, there’s something ominous about Jimmy’s placement throughout It’s A Wonderful Life.
There are three majorly intense pieces of bad news that George receives throughout the film: when his father dies, and he has to take over the family business; when the bank crashes, and George and Mary have to use their honeymoon money to keep the bank open; and when Uncle Billy loses the $8,000, putting the family in dire economic (and legal) straits. And who is there throughout every single one of those scenes? You guessed it: The raven.
He’s there when the bank decides that Bailey Building and Loan will only stay open if George doesn’t go to college and runs it instead. . . and George makes the heart-wrenching sacrifice to stay behind and give his college money to his younger brother, Harry.
He’s waiting solemnly, cawing, when George opens the door during the bank run (when Mary and George ultimately have to give up their dreams of a beautiful honeymoon around the world).
And during the most harrowing trial of all — when Billy loses $8,000 of the bank’s money during a bank examination — the raven flies onto Uncle Billy’s shoulder and lingers there as he frets, as if the raven is fear personified, weighing him down.
In fact, as the raven is on Billy’s shoulder when he is talking to Harry, Billy is rendered practically unable to speak, let alone congratulate his nephew for winning the Medal of Honor.
The raven doesn’t appear any other time, yet he’s always there in his cawing, ominous glory whenever bad news is afoot. And when Billy shows up with a big basket of money at the end of the movie, there’s no raven to be seen.
When the raven is close by, hard times are sure to come. He seems to be there as a predictor of doom and misfortune — a symbol that any Edgar Allen Poe fan would recognize.
But there’s a good side to this, guys! Arguably, the fact that Billy keeps him as a pet perhaps adds to the bittersweet quality of It’s A Wonderful Life — that the Baileys have accepted bad news as just something to deal with together, and they simply roll with the punches when the hard times come, because they know that they’re inevitable and another part of this complex thing we call life.
Although George has had a harder life than many, and he has been knocked off his feet time and time again, he’s not afraid of any bad news, even when he’s a little shaky to rise back up and give it all he’s got. The Baileys have conquered fear of misfortune and made it their own, because when it all comes down to it, life is still pretty swell.
As if we needed more reasons to love It’s A Wonderful Life. <3
(Images via RKO Radio Pictures.)