(Video copyright Republic Pictures/Artisan Entertainment)
Succumb — to give way to superior force; yield (Dictionary.com)
In my opinion, the above scene is the best depiction of the agony that comes with acknowledging that one is in love, and in doing so, relinquishing one’s independent life.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is all about how the best intentions (such as a five-year plan, a career goal, etc.) can be pure folly. Prior to this scene, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, has been living a life of compromise and delayed gratification. He takes on responsibilities for the family business, among other obligations to friends and neighbors in his hometown of Bedford Falls, New York. His true desire is to leave, to explore the larger world and see all that it holds.
And yet, he cannot deny his love for Mary, Donna Reed’s character. His desire for her — and all she represents — is in direct opposition to his lifelong drive to be someone, to voyage out, to be an adventurer.
Watch Jimmy Stewart’s physical performance in this scene. The conflict starts just as George gets within close proximity to Mary. With some distance, George can deny or stifle his attraction, but once he’s in her orbit he is in an all-out struggle of mind over matter, of logic over lust. Note how he can’t help but sniff her hair, how his grip on the telephone receiver alternately loosens and tightens, how his eyes both narrow and relax. The two actors are as close as can be within the frame, their two bodies huddled together around the telephone, and yet George seems to draw impossibly closer to Mary with each breath, as though she were pulling him in with a magnetic force. His facial expressions flutter between determined resistance and inescapable desire. The moment holds two very different versions of George’s future, and his choice will do no less than cement the ultimate course of his life: world explorer bachelor or devoted small-town husband.
The above clip has been edited to eliminate George’s fiery outburst when he makes his decision, but I think we’ve all seen it on countless reruns (and, if you haven’t, the full movie is available here). When his passion erupts and he chooses Mary, it’s such a thrilling display of emotion and physicality — a direct contrast to his struggle to repress his feelings in the scene’s previous few minutes. George will let his initial dream go, but not without a fight. It’s the best depiction I’ve seen of the moment one realizes they’re hopelessly in love, and that they’re about to inhabit a new self, one that may have been previously unrecognizable. It’s the moment one realizes they’ve found their partner, and the acknowledgment of what one is willing to sacrifice in order to stay in that same orbit as their loved one. For George, the decision is huge, life-altering, identity-changing. He succumbs in the true sense of the word — giving way to love, a superior force — and is willing to see who he is (and who he will become) on the other side.
This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.