“He [George Bailey] wasn’t trying to extract value out of those folks. He just used a different method for determining who was creditworthy. … He didn’t try to do accelerated mortgages that were going to cost people their homes or suck thousands of dollars of value out of every transaction. They were trying to help people build some wealth! It’s why we named our dog Bailey. And Bailey is a very good boy.” —Senator Elizabeth Warren
Growing up my family of origin held the decidedly common tradition of the year-end, annual viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life. At least, I thought it was incredibly common, but then both my sister Mel and I married red-blooded American men who had never once seen the movie prior to meeting us, so now I don’t know? What I do know is, they’ve seen it now, and not necessarily by choice.
My brother-in-law calls the movie It’s a Wonderful Life For Everyone Except George, and my husband dubs it It’s Time to Shit All Over George Bailey Again, in case anyone wondered how the Wallace Men have taken to our tradition. At least they like the Christmas morning sausage balls?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I see their points, but my relationship to this Christmas movie classic has evolved as I’ve aged. Popular opinion still clings to the Good Guy status of ol’ George Bailey. Hell, presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren and her husband named their golden retriever Bailey, after George. In a recent Rolling Stone profile, Warren states her sympathies with the Bailey Building and Loan Co, arguing it is not a subprime lender but a good bank trying to sincerely help people build wealth or at least reach into the middle class, that those are the motivations behind her dog’s name. But watch that movie in the twenty-first century, and the dark side of George Bailey is on full display. The man abuses his wife, his uncle, and his kids.
Though we may have relegated Baby It’s Cold Outside to the dustbin of #MeToo, modern society continues to celebrate this movie, despite the obvious evidence of retrograde treatment of women and children staring us in the face each December. Why is that? Does George Bailey’s laudable traits, like his willingness to forgo adventure and riches to continue protecting the working and middle class of Bedford Falls from financial predators like Old Man Potter, outweigh his inclinations to batter his wife and children? Are we fine to overlook their private pain for his generous and self-sacrificing public reputation?
The montage towards the end of the movie, where the angel Clarence shows George what happens if he’d never been born, that ends with George weeping that he wants to live again on that snowy bridge is always an emotional watch. We learn of people, like his brother Harry, who otherwise died because George wasn’t there to save them. The town residents who live in slums because there was no building and loan, or the former boss who spent his adult life in jail over an honest mistake that George wasn’t there to correct. It’s gripping. You tear up, every time.
Also during this montage, we discover that without George, Mary is single, childless, and in charge of the town’s public library, and that’s … bad? She’s surrounded by books, her customers are people who want to be there in the first place, okay yeah she has to deal with the occasional gaggle of unruly first-graders on a field trip, but then she goes home to her quiet house and kicks back with a glass of wine and Netflix. No exhausted husbands yelling at her and shaking her shoulders, no sick kids whining… You don’t have to be in a bad marriage or have kids to at least occasionally harbor a tad bit of envy for Mary Hatch’s counterfactual.
The truth is, the duality of George Bailey is a real-life phenomenon. There exist plenty of men whose public and professional lives are hard-working, sacrificial, generous, kind, and ethical, while their private lives are short-tempered, derisive, and explosive. They come home from a work day of helping strangers to terrorizing their families. Jekyll and Hyde. And usually, no one’s the wiser.
We watch this movie in 2019 and no one talks about the silent pain on Mary’s face as she smiles at the whole town toasting George and giving him money. No one speaks of the strength his daughter Janie displays as she diligently plays the piano for the crowd, entertaining them mere hours after her father has tormented her, telling no one her dark secret.
It seems obvious by now that It’s a Wonderful Life won’t be suffering any popularity points for its protagonist’s moral failures. Like I pointed out earlier, Senator Warren, a woman and feminist it should be noted, named her dog after George Bailey. And look, we named our cats after the scientists who discovered DNA, which means that we named our (now late) kitty Watson after Dr. James Watson – yes, THAT James Watson – so far be it for me to moralize about anyone’s pet-naming process. But I guess all this is to say that maybe we should be talking about this? Maybe we shouldn’t allow someone’s stellar professional and public reputation to grant them impunity to terrorize their families behind closed doors?
Full disclosure, I still watch the movie every year. It’s tradition! I also still listen to and sing along with Baby It’s Cold Outside. I still bake up my family’s Christmas morning sausage balls, and they contain Bisquick. I suspect I will always enjoy these traditions, and appreciate the familiarity that washes over me every year. But now both media classics make me cringe a bit. Perhaps I’m taking the easy way out – I’m no better than anyone else – but I choose to see my cringing as empathy and humanity shining through, despite my unwillingness to one thousand percent cancel my problematic, dated Christmas traditions.
Sausage and Sage Biscuits
- 3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ tbs granulated sugar
- 1 tbs plus 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 ½ tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp baking soda
- Pinch of cayenne
- 12 tbs unsalted cold butter, cut into chunks
- 8 oz cooked and cooled ground breakfast sausage
- 4 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- ¼ cup chopped fresh sage
- 1 ¼ cups buttermilk, chilled
- 1-2 tbs unsalted butter, melted, for brushing
- Preheat your oven to 425 F and line a baking sheet with a silpat or parchment paper.
- In a large mixing bowl, gently combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, and cayenne. Add the chunked cold butter and use a pastry blender in only up-and-down motions to incorporate the butter with the flour mixture. It’s ready when the butter is the size of peas. Now add the sausage, cheese, and sage. Pour the buttermilk over all and use a rubber spatula to quickly and gently combine the mixture. Knead with your hands for no more than a minute to get the last straggly bits to incorporate.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured clean surface and pat into a 1 ½-inch thick rectangle. Use a sharp knife to cut 12 even squares. Transfer them to the prepared baking sheet, pretty close together as this will encourage them to rise up and not out.
- Brush the tops generously with melted butter, then immediately transfer to the oven. Bake 13-16 minutes, or until cooked through. Use the tap test to determine doneness: they should feel firm but springy when tapped on top. If they are squishy or are moving side to side easily, they aren’t done yet.
- Let cool until you can handle them, then serve. They are tasty at room temperature as well.