For some time, it’s been fashionable to pick apart bits of the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, my favorite movie.
A Wonderful Life…?
George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, lives in sleepy, cheerful little Bedford Falls, doesn’t think much of the place at all and wants first to travel the world, then to build skyscrapers. Events get in the way: his father dies, and George takes over his dad’s savings and loan to keep it from falling into the clutches of Mr. Potter, the richest and meanest man in town.
But also: George himself falls into the clutches of Mary Hatch, the beautiful girl next door, who never wants to leave Bedford Falls, and who engineers George’s imprisonment in his hated home town, through a variety of means.
When things are at their darkest, an angel shows George what the world would have been like had he never been born.
George realizes that, indeed, he had lived a Wonderful Life.
But his “Wonderful Life” is derived from the joy George gives others, the homes he sells them for cheap, and the good will and affection that he has accrued over the course of decades living in a little town that he hates.
Pottersville: Not a Bad Place!
Many critics have noted that Pottersville — the supposedly seedy slum that Bedford Falls would have become had George Bailey never been born — actually seems like a pretty cool place to live, with great jazz joints and racial integration.
In 1946, this would have represented a shocking and awful transformation for a wholesome little town, but not in 2021. That the Hellification of Bedford Falls is represented so significantly by the appearance of a Black man playing Jazz piano in a nightclub is dispiriting; our favorite movie suffers from the racism of the time.
So Pottersville had its plusses!
But let’s also spare a few kind words for Life’s maligned semi-villain, Sam Wainwright.
The darkness in Mary Bailey
As you may recall, Sam was Mary’s companion in early adulthood. We learn from George that Sam is crazy about Mary; we learn from George’s mother that Mary isn’t crazy about Sam. So George has an opening.
Donna Reed, who portrayed Mary, makes the young woman charming and enticing, and many men would eagerly succumb to George’s fate.
Yet Mary seems to engineer many, many tricks and schemes to ensure that her husband will never make it even one mile outside his despised Bedford Falls, and in the hands of a more diabolical actress, Mary would make a stunning villain.
Mary works in New York for a couple of summers during college, where her romance with Sam blooms, but she soon returns to Bedford Falls and sets her sights on George.
In spite of his supposed smittenness, Sam doesn’t work very hard to keep Mary. We don’t see them together. We don’t witness their breakup, or even hear any details about it.
Who ends the relationship? We don’t know. Does she try to lure him from New York back home, to rot away working in the local hardware store? Perhaps he escapes George’s fate; perhaps he sees something George could not recognize about the charming Mary Hatch.
Trapped in Bedford Falls
What we do know is that Sam remains in New York City, where he becomes some sort of entrepreneur, while Mary returns to Bedford Falls, marries George, raises their children and renovates their home, the Old Granville Place at 320 Sycamore, a hulking, previously abandoned house in which she has dreamed of living since she was a little girl.
George gives up his dreams of traveling to Europe and building skyscrapers in cities; and then even his European honeymoon is wrecked when Mary gives away their honeymoon money to save the Savings and Loan.
Had she not done so, he would not have been bound to Bedford Falls.
They spend their wedding night not in Europe, but in the Old Granville Place, which Mary somehow acquires without George’s knowledge.
I watched this movie over the summer with my younger daughter, who did not think that George had lived a wonderful life, exactly.
“Didn’t he ever get to travel?” she wondered. “Not even once?”
Sam is an entrepreneur who does good
But what of Sam Wainwright?
Free of Mary, he lives the life that George might have wanted, a city life full of achievement. What kind of achievement? Well, he patents a means of making plastic out of soybeans, dispensing with petroleum and, perhaps (in this fictitious world), saving the planet.
He also saves Bedford Falls — if not for his soybean plastic plant, which replaces a shuttered factory and employs the “half the town” thrown out of work, no one in Bedford Falls would be able to afford to pay back any of the Bailey Savings and Loan mortgages. If not for Sam Wainwright, the Bailey Savings and Loan would go bust, and Bedford Falls would become Pottersville.
He’s an annoying guy, certainly, always screaming “Hee Haw!” and making donkey ears. He calls George “Old Moss-Back,” and his cocky self-confidence is irritating.
But he’s not bad. His life is exciting. He has money, but he uses it to do good. He’s happy. He cares.
This Christmas season, why not raise a toast to the misunderstood Sam Wainwright, who did more good for Planet Earth and Bedford Falls than anyone has previously recognized.
Here’s to Sam Wainwright.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.
This column originally appeared in Audere Magazine.