My Most-Quoted Movie Lines (No. 4)
4. “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!”
— George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
Screenplay by Fances Goodrich, Albert Hackett and Frank Capra. From a story by Philip Van Doren Stern
I misplaced this in the film. In my mind it was in the scene where we first see George Bailey as an adult, as Jimmy Stewart, and he’s checking out suitcases for travel abroad. Nope. He actually says it later that evening, to Mary, as they’re making their way home from Harry’s (and Mary’s) “Class of ‘28” graduation dance. Talking and flirting after their dunk in the pool, they spot the old Granville place, the home he and Mary will eventually live in, and, as per the custom, and over her objections, he makes a wish, throw a rock and breaks a window. His wish is the line. It’s what young men have wished for forever.
I love the word “crummy” in there. Poor George has been stuck in Bedford Falls for four years now while friends like Sam Wainwright — that hee-haw bastard — went off to college. At this point George is still a young man and he still thinks he controls his destiny. Before the line, he tells Mary what he’s going to be doing the next day and the day after, and none of it involves her (even as he’s falling for her), and so she makes her own wish and breaks her own window. Pretty awful, now that I think about it. Her wish — the wish we suspect she makes — is to trump his wish. Sure enough, by scene’s end, George’s father has a stroke, then dies, and George has to take over the Building & Loan. And there goes Italy and Greece and the Parthenon — let alone Samarqand. Nice effin’ wish, Mary.
Three years ago, I got into a good discussion with my brother-in-law, Eric, about this movie. We both thought it was inspirational but I argued it was inspirational only within the parameters of “even if.” Even if you’re stuck in the same town your whole life, even if you don’t get what you most want out of life, yes, life can still be wonderful. Even if. He thought it was inspirational because of those parameters. We were both right, really, we were just in different places in our heads and hearts. Eric had done everything he could to return to his home state of Minnesota, to be near his parents and raise his kids, while I had returned to Minneapolis for a job and felt slightly uncomfortable being back. He wanted Bedford Falls and I didn’t. I still wanted to shake the dust of that crummy little town off my feet and see the world! God, I said the line a lot back then. Wrapped in the worst Jimmy Stewart imitation ever.
I say it less now but it still rings true. Every town is crummy when you’re stuck in it. The world’s a big place and worth seeing. Go. The Class of 1928 is nipping at our heels.