It’s a Wonderful Mary Bailey — The Extraordinary Woman Who Saved George (More Than Once)
She had the brains, skills & a successful crowdfunding campaign.
The angel Clarence took George Bailey on a 3D virtual tour of what life would be like in Bedford Falls if he’d never been born — that kept George alive and inspired gratitude in him.
But the peek into Pottersville may have solidified his notion that he was the only one who could save the townspeople from Potter, a belief that might have been one of the biggest reasons George never realized his dreams.
No, it wasn’t God or an angel seeking a promotion.
It was Mary Bailey who saved George.
The film ends with Mary saving George from failure (and even prison). But that wasn’t the first time she had saved him and his business. Most of us didn’t notice, even though we watched the fictional characters bring us to tears year after year.
On Christmas morning 2021 I read this piece by Monica Hesse:
Perspective | Mary Bailey is the true hero of 'It's a Wonderful Life'
Hark! I bring you glad tidings, and also the only correct interpretation of the granddaddy of all Christmas classics…
It inspired me to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again (which I had not seen in 25 years). This time I watched Mary closely and saw her impressive skills, her virtues, and her maturity.
Mary Bailey’s Business & Leadership Skills
Mary was a clear-headed, get-things-done kind of person, who was goal-oriented and demonstrated a range of executive skills.
She was ahead of her time and even with the limitations she faced as a woman in the 1940s, she was the savvy adult who played a role in keeping George Bailey from failure.
The Rare Combination of Visionary and Implementor Skills
We see this in certain leaders, but most people excel in one or the other but not both.
As a visionary Mary set goals, made plans, and created strategies for what needed to be done. We also watched Mary the implementor, take effective action in an instant.
Mary Knew What She Wanted and How to Get It
It seemed that her husband George knew what he wanted. He spouted off about it to anyone who would listen. But he never managed to manifest his vision and big plans.
Mary seemingly wanted less but she knew what she wanted and she managed to check off every item on her bucket list.
Perhaps her goals were not considered lofty but she accomplished them with no obstacle insurmountable and always with a smile on her face.
Getting a college degree, raising four children, rehabbing a large house by herself, running a branch of the USO, keeping George Bailey on track, and rescuing him from financial ruin and prison, Mary was a superhero.
Mary’s Virtues and Skills
Mary had what business professionals today call Emotional Intelligence, but her communication and relational skills were far beyond EQ.
Mary was forthright. She was self-aware, honest, and direct.
Mary was in touch with her feelings. She didn’t hide or deny her emotions. Mary had the skill of equanimity which was supported by her positive outlook.
As a mature adult, she never experienced herself as a victim and therefore never complained.
Mary was assertive and had good boundaries. She demonstrated that on her first date with George. She knew she wasn’t ready to kiss him and when he tried she held up her hand, turned around, and walked away.
Later that night she again dealt assertively with George when her robe got pulled off when George stepped on the belt as she was walking away. She ran into the bushes to cover herself. George picked up her robe, and started to toss it to her but then decided to play games with her. Mary demanded that he give back her robe and continued to assert herself. Unfortunately, to no avail.
In that scene George was unkind. He “teased” Mary, withholding her robe, keeping her trapped in the bushes as she tried to cover herself. By today’s standards, George’s behavior would be considered sexual harassment.
Creative Thinking and Problem Solving
Mary was a creative thinker. She had the ability to see potential and envision outcomes (like fixing up the old house). Maybe she saw that potential in George as well.
It was Mary who stood up and offered micro-loans from their honeymoon funds to save the Building and Loan when there was a run on the bank.
We saw her do this, but for 75 years we didn’t notice because when she did, she was only on screen for mere seconds — that’s all it took for George to grab the cash from her and yell out to the crowd. He was back in the spotlight and got the credit for her fast-thinking creative response to the emergency.
The shot of her rehabbing the old house by herself later in the film was one second of her hanging wallpaper while caring for her children.
Someone on Twitter said Mary Bailey was the first person to do Crowdfunding.
When George was in a financial crisis, he went ballistic and then collapsed in despair. But Mary hit the ground running and launched a fundraising campaign.
Billy points to Mary and says “Mary did it, George! Mary did it! She told some people you were in trouble and they scattered all over town collecting money!”
Harry responds when asked about his banquet in New York, “Oh, I left right in the middle of it — soon as I got Mary’s telegram!”
Mary even got her ex-boyfriend Sam to send $25,000 from London! (exceeding her goal of $8,000!)
George Needed Mary
George had the biggest heart. Throughout his life, he helped many people. But while many saw him as selfless, I believe George had a “Savior Complex,” which is defined as a compulsion or feeling of obligation to help people, seeing yourself as the only one who can and putting aside your own well-being to do so.
Another part of the “Savior Complex” is that if you need help yourself you might go to the other extreme and fall into the victim role. You are not comfortable asking for help, only being the helper. That’s why I don’t think George would have ever asked people to help him when the $8,000 was lost.
While George was crying in his beer, ready to end his life, Mary stepped up, created a plan, and took action. She was the resourceful problem-solver who came to the rescue.
Mary Chose to Caretake But Wasn’t Codependent
This aspect of Mary is fascinating and one to learn from. Lucky for George, Mary was forgiving. She overlooked much of his aggressive behavior. She took on George as the man-boy who she would mother and manage, which was quite a project. At first glance, it had all the hallmarks of codependency but under the microscope, we see that it wasn’t.
Mary consciously took on that role with George and while she tolerated a lot from him, she wasn’t being codependent.
We know this because we see her healthy characteristics:
On Christmas Eve after George was verbally abusive to the children and smashed his architectural models, Mary pulled her children close, looked him straight in the eye, and asked, “Why must you torture the children?”
That scene was an excellent demonstration of:
- Direct, assertive communication. She asked the obvious question without fear or hesitation.
- Healthy boundaries and setting a limit. She gathered her children close and then asked the question that called out and de-escalated George.
Additionally, her kindness was never compulsive or guilt-motivated. We also don’t see signs of the underlying rage that many codependents carry (the resentment that builds when they do things for others that aren’t reciprocated, when they always give in, or when they allow themselves to be mistreated).
Mary is a self-aware spiritually evolved person. Her kindness is authentic because it’s truly a choice (hence the reason she has no resentment).
Mary Had the Luck of Being in a 1946 Film
In the early 20th century many women were represented in film in stronger roles, and less sexualized than what we saw in the decades that followed.
Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford played the roles of women who were smart, self-assured, and three-dimensional — and who were central to the narrative. Of course, there were also sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe. While Monroe was not taken seriously or fully respected, other sex symbols like Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren were.
Even though the director of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra was a known sexist, he and the screenwriters portrayed Mary Bailey as a competent, creative, and mature adult. The original screenwriting team consisted of Frances Goodrich and her husband with later input by Dorothy Parker.
Mary lived in George’s shadow, but she was no bimbo trophy wife.
Mary’s character benefitted from the cultural mores of the 1940s. Even though the objectification of women was expressed by 13-year-old George who told Mary that when he grew up he would have a harem of wives and a few years after that he pulled the robe-stealing stunt, Mary was not portrayed as complicit or helpless.
That was the paradox of this film. Mary was portrayed respectfully, and more three-dimensional than many women in 21st-century films.
I was a staunch feminist when I saw the film 25 years ago. After watching it again, I felt embarrassed that I didn’t remember all of Mary’s accomplishments or level of competency.
The reason I didn’t was because of the director’s creative way of keeping a woman from upstaging the male lead — he included Mary’s accomplishments but featured them on screen for mere seconds before the camera returned to George.
It’s Time to Notice and Appreciate Mary Bailey
For decades we didn’t give Mary enough recognition.
We’ve been trained to think that a screen full of white men is normal.
It’s time to rack focus — blur the foreground and zoom in on Mary.
Mary Hatch Bailey never looked to an authority figure to bail her out. She took responsibility for herself and didn’t blame the world for her struggles.
She was a competent adult who didn’t need a guardian angel.
But her husband did. George’s guardian angel facilitated the wake-up call that convinced him to stick around.
But it was Mary who saved him — she saved him throughout the marriage and from the final crisis at the end of the film.
Viewers were happy, of course, that George made the decision to live.
If he hadn’t, Mary would have been heartbroken. It would have been devastating for her to lose the man she dearly loved, but she would have recovered.
Once she did, I have a feeling she would have taken the $15,000 life insurance money and started a successful business.
When the Christmas season rolls around, watch It’s a Wonderful Life again, this time with an eye on Mary.