It’s a Wonderful Mary Bailey — The Extraordinary Woman Who Saved George (More Than Once)

Donna Reed playing Mary Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” - 1946

It wasn’t God who bailed him out. God’s angel 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. That belief could have been the obstacle to him ever realizing 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:

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 many 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.

Mary Was a Visionary and an Implementor

Mary had that rare combination of both visionary and implementor skills that we see in certain leaders. 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 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 his vision and big plans ended up being pipe dreams that he couldn’t manifest.

Mary seemingly wanted less but she knew she wanted to go to college and she did. She knew she wanted to marry George, and she did. She knew she wanted children. She knew she wanted to live in the old Granville house. She knew she wanted to fix up that old house and she knew how (or figured it out).

Perhaps her goals were not considered lofty but she accomplished every one of them with no obstacle insurmountable and always with a smile on her face.

Let’s be honest — getting a college degree, raising four children, rehabbing a large run-down house, running a branch of the USO, keeping George Bailey in line, and rescuing him from financial ruin and prison, Mary was nothing short of a superhero.

Mary’s Qualities, 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 she lost her robe and ran into the bushes to cover herself and George refused to throw her the robe). Mary demanded that he give back her robe and continued to assert herself. Unfortunately, to no avail.

In that scene George was unkind, bordering on cruel. He “teased” Mary withholding her robe, keeping her trapped in the bushes trying 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 in advance. She could envision the old house fixed up. Maybe she saw that potential in George as well.

Mary had leadership skills. She was decisive. She knew how to quickly assess a situation, determine how to handle it, and then act. 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 we barely noticed for 75 years. One of the reasons (likely the biggest reason) was because when she did, she was only on screen for literally one second — that’s all it took for George to run, 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.

Someone on Twitter said Mary Bailey was the first person to do Crowdfunding. When George was in a prison-worthy financial crisis, he went ballistic then collapsed in despair. But Mary hit the ground running and skillfully worked on fundraising.

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 likely would have never asked people to help him when the $8,000 was lost. He was in the victim role so often that he wasn’t comfortable asking for help, only being the helper.

So while George was crying in his beer, ready to kill himself, Mary stepped up, created a plan, and took action. She was the resourceful problem-solver who rescued her husband.

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. It was quite a project. At first glance, it had all the hallmarks of codependency but under the microscope, we can 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. How do we know? Because we saw no traits of codependency. We saw her healthy characteristics:

On Christmas Eve after George was verbally abusive to the children and smashed all 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 to her and then asked the question directly that stopped him.

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, when they allow themselves to be mistreated, etc.)

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 we saw in the decades that followed.

Think Katharine Hepburn. Bette Davis. Joan Crawford. These actors often 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 symbol types like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Loren.

The history of women in film is multifaceted, but let’s take a brief look.

From the article above:
“Prior to the passing of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1930, women enjoyed an era of liberation both on- and off-screen…

Right there on the silver screen, they got abortions, had orgasms, dealt with birth control, went on adventures…It came down to the power of the purse versus the power of patriarchy.

“Female audiences in the early years of cinema were really prized,” says Shelley Stamp, film historian and author of Movie-Struck Girls and Lois Weber in Early Hollywood. “By the end of the ’20s, one estimate is that over 80% of movie audiences were female…that statistic continues through the ’30s and ‘40s.” Films of the time showed women leaping out of trains and leading the charge into full-blown revolutions. Because that is what those majority-female audiences wanted to see, and what they would pay for.” Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: Women Cutting Through Bullshit For A Century, Lauren Le Vine, December 6, 2019

Even though Frank Capra was a known sexist, he and the screenwriters portrayed Mary Bailey as a competent, creative, and mature adult. The original screenwriting team for It’s a Wonderful Life was Frances Goodrich and her husband with later input by Dorothy Parker. Mary lives in George’s shadow, but she was far from a bimbo trophy wife.

I think Mary’s character benefitted from the cultural mores of the 1940s. Even though the objectification of women was expressed by 13-year-old George and a few years later his robe-stealing scene pointed out his comfort with sexual harassment, Mary was not portrayed as complicit or helpless. Even though she was beautiful she wasn’t set up as a sex symbol. That was the paradox of this film. Mary was portrayed respectfully, seriously, and more three-dimensional than many women in 21st-century films.

That’s the reason we are able to examine her skills and virtues. Even though she always played second fiddle to George and her abilities were ignored by audiences, her proficiencies and accomplishments were featured and acknowledged (as in the examples mentioned above, as well as another one-second shot of her hanging wallpaper while caring for her children at home).

I was a staunch feminist when I saw the film 25 years ago and I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t remember the level of Mary’s competency or that she led the fundraising drive that saved George at the end of the movie. However, I’ll cut myself some slack because after a close look I noticed that Mary’s key accomplishment moments are shown on screen for mere seconds before the camera returns to George. That was the director’s creative way of keeping a woman from upstaging the male lead.

It’s a long tangled tale, but the portrayal of women in film deteriorated significantly in the decades after IAWL was made. The introduction of television had a particularly devastating impact when women’s passivity and servitude roles returned with the housewives of “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “Ozzie & Harriet.”

In today’s films, we don’t see enough women with healthy boundaries who are good at setting limits. While we are seeing more films about the lives of women with strong women of substance, we still see far too many passive and sexualized female characters and films with gratuitous nudity and sex scenes.

Today’s cultural mores are likely doing damage to girls and women who are shown in “modern” movies embracing their sexual desire but often displayed on screen in ways that appeal more to men. Because of what we see portrayed by Hollywood, women are expected to comply sexually, and if they say no they fear they will be accused of being prudish or will be publicly shamed.

I’ve spelled out what I noticed about Mary Bailey when I watched the film for the first time in many years, as well as George’s behavior that most of us seemed to have overlooked for the last seven decades. He wasn’t the guy I remembered.

The Reality That We Never Fixed

We didn’t value Mary. We didn’t see Mary. I believe that ignoring Mary and what we were willing to overlook about George explains what’s wrong with our society today.

I believe it’s why we have such extreme inequity and why we tolerate an epidemic of violence.

We were blind to it in 1946, and consequently, we never fixed it. While we’ve made some progress, that system of power, dominance, and exclusion (the patriarchal system) not only continues to thrive but in recent years its destructive force is gaining steam.

It’s Time to Make Mary Bailey Visible

Our society has done a great disservice to Mary Bailey for decades. We didn’t recognize her skills and never gave her credit for what she accomplished.

We allowed ourselves to be dazzled by George, who always had the spotlight, even though he was weaker and less competent than Mary.

We’ve been trained to not notice these inequities. We’ve been trained to think that a screen full of men, big as life, is normal. Now we notice the woman in the background and see how hard she worked. We realize we’ve been fooled. It’s time to rack focus—blur the foreground and zoom in on Mary.

Mary Hatch Bailey never experienced herself as a victim. She didn’t look 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. His guardian angel facilitated the wake-up call that convinced George to stick around.

But it was Mary Bailey 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.

Though, if he hadn’t, Mary likely would have taken the $15,000 life insurance money and started a successful business.

Just sayin’.



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Christine Green

Christine Green

Relational & Procedural Skills Coach. Web Design. Unbridled perspectives on almost everything.