The Crimes of George Bailey and the People of Bedford Falls in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

BY Jason Bland

George Bailey arrested as depicted by DALL-E from ChatGPT
  • George Bailey is a drunk driver.
  • The Building and Loan could face federal charges.
  • George Bailey and some of his neighbors commit felonies.
  • An angel assaults a police officer.

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Last weekend, you may have taken part in what is now a Christmas tradition by watching the classic holiday movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," directed by Frank Capra and released in 1946. The film tells the story of George Bailey, a man who sacrifices his personal dreams for the betterment of his community in Bedford Falls. Portrayed by acting legend James Stewart, George Bailey, while noble and well-intentioned, commits a surprising number of serious crimes throughout the movie.

As the holiday season is winding down, we thought it would be fun to look at all of the laws that George Bailey violated in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Trespassing and Property Damage

George and Marry throw rocks at a house in violation of NY Penal Law § 145.10

In a youthful escapade, George and Mary, his future wife, are seen throwing rocks at the windows of an old house, an act that constitutes trespassing and vandalism. Though portrayed playfully in the film, these actions are technically criminal offenses. Mary, who was 18 at the time, also vandalized the old house; thus, today, both George and Mary would be tried as adults for violating NY Penal Law § 145.10, which carries a penalty of $1,500 and possibly up to 1 year in prison.

Violations of Banking Regulations

George Bailey and Violet after George gives her a loan.

Set during the era of the Great Depression, the film portrays the Bailey Building and Loan operating under relaxed lending practices, where loans are often approved based on personal trust rather than formal credit assessments. This approach, though community-focused, potentially violates the stringent banking regulations of the time, designed to prevent financial crises like bank runs. When the film's greedy villain, Mr. Potter, accuses the Bailey Building and Loan of building a house for anyone who "shoots pool" with an employee, he made a valid point. Of course, at that part of the film, the bank runs had not taken place so it was likely before the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

However, later in the post-World War II part of the film, George Bailey is seen reaching into his pocket and handing a cash loan over to Violet Bick without any formal review of creditworthiness. Was that a loan from the Bailey Building and Loan? If so, an investigation should be conducted to find out why George was walking around with depositors' funds wrinkled in his pocket.

Financial Irregularities and Mismanagement

Billy Bailey loses money while bragging to Mr. Potter

A significant legal issue arose when George's Uncle Billy, an officer of the Bailey Building and Loan, lost $8,000. The money is lost at the bank when Uncle Billy attempts to boast to Mr. Potter about George's brother Harry being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Billy's poor judgment resulted in the mishandling of their depositors' funds, which, today would be equal to $170,000.

Today, both George and Billy Bailey would likely need an embezzlement defense lawyer and would face some pretty serious federal charges.

Driving Under the Influence (DUI)

George Bailey drinks before driving.

After leaving Martini's bar, George gets into his car and drives away. He's intoxicated when leaving the bar. Unfortunately for George, New York was the first state to make drunk driving illegal, passing the first anti-drunk driving law in the United States in 1910.

Leaving the Scene of an Accident

George Bailey wrecks car

While driving under the influence, George takes a turn too quickly and hits a tree in someone's front yard. He then climbed out of his wrecked car and left the scene of the accident. Leaving the scene of an accident violates NY Vehicle and Traffic Law § 600, which could carry a 15-day jail sentence. If someone was injured, it would have become a felony but fortunately for George, only an old oak tree was injured.

Assaulting a Police Officer

Bert the Cop

One of the more serious legal offenses committed by George in the film is when he punches Bert the cop to avoid capture. First, George violates NY Penal Law § 205.30 by resisting arrest and then commits a Class C Felony by assaulting a peace office.

Bedford Falls is a Hotbed of Criminal Mischief

George Bailey isn't the only resident of Bedford Falls, New York, who is breaking the law. Let's look at some other infractions.

Drunk Pharmacist Beats Child Employee

Mr. Gower beats 12 year old employee

Mr. Gower, the town's pharmacist, commits several crimes after learning of the death of his son. While it's not a specific crime to be drunk as a pharmacist, it could result in a charge of public intoxication. Mr. Gower, while drunk, fills a prescription that would have resulted in a fatal pharmacy error had George Bailey delivered the drugs which were actually poison pills. Why a pharmacist has a jug of poison pills AND such pills being stored in an unsecured location is cause for multiple investigations.

After George Bailey refuses to deliver the poison, Mr. Gower, proceeds to beat his 12-year-old employee to the point that George's recently injured ear begins to bleed. Today, Mr. Gower would be in a lot of trouble, even after George saved him from a manslaughter charge for poisoning a child patient and not just for violating child labor laws. Reckless assault of a minor is a Class D felony in New York with a 2-year minimum and 7-year maximum sentence.

Harassment in the Workplace and Racial Discrimination

Annie being harrased at work

Early in the movie, Harry Bailey assaults the family's African American housekeeper. He shouts "Annie, I'm in love with you. There's a moon out tonight!" And then, he slaps her on her butt.

This act, which is witnessed by Annie's employer, Peter Bailey (George and Harry's father who does not intervene) would likely qualify as sexual harassment in the workplace and possibly racial discrimination.

An Angel Assaults a Police Officer

Clarence biting Bert the Cop

Bert the cop just can't catch a break. Before he's punched in the face by George Bailey, George's guardian angel, Clarence bites Bert to prevent him from arresting George. Even angels can't help but commit felonies in Bedford Falls.

It's Still a Great Movie

In spite of the scofflaws that make up the population of Bedford Falls, New York, "It's a Wonderful Life" is still a classic feel-good movie about community and coming together even with its ensemble of characters committing inappropriate and criminal acts.

From all of us at Bigger Law Firm Magazine, Happy New Year!

Jason Bland

Jason Bland is a Co-Founder of Custom Legal Marketing and a regular contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine. He focuses on strategies for law firms in highly competitive markets. He's a contributor on Forbes.com, is a member of the Forbes Agency Council, Young Entrepreneurs Council, and has been quoted in Inc. Magazine, Business Journals, Above the Law, and many other publications.

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