Oh, the month is getting away from me!
You know, I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” the other night and I am always ripped apart by this scene between young George and Mr. Gower, only about 10 minutes into the movie. Mr. Gower has just received a telegram notifying him of his son’s death. George has seen the telegram, too, and that Mr. Gower has been drinking heavily. Gower gives George the task to deliver some medicine, but he’s so drunk and despairing, he doesn’t realize he put poison in the capsules instead of medicine. George knows, though, and runs to dad for advice on what to do. Dad, of course, is in the middle of a brouhaha with Mr. Potter and can’t help George, so George is left to decide for himself what to do with the poisoned pills. He doesn’t deliver them, but heads back to the drugstore — and Mr. Gower.
Every year when I watch this scene, I end up sobbing. The scene, to me, is raw and real and powerful and I love how neither actor — Robert Anderson as young George and H. B. Warner as Mr. Gower — holds back anything. I mean, that kid playing George looks about 12 or 13 to me. Such an awkward age. I’ve taught drama to that age group and most boys that age, even boys with interest in performing, just stumble about, self-conscious, unable to control their changing voices, their clumsy bodies, and uncomfortable with any raw emotion — other than rage. Rage they could do okay, in a “Look! I am SO raging!” kind of way.
But this beautiful kid — literally, physically beautiful kid — Robert Anderson — who I know from nothing else other than this movie — is completely unafraid to go there. He has to be terrified. He has to be beaten. He has to cry. He has to cower. He has to beg. And he has to come out on top, really. Win the moment because it’s life or death. All in this one short scene. And he does it. And you never for a moment think he’s a wuss — which is what my male students’ objection to playing a scene like this would have been. He’s a young man in this scene and he’s totally willing to be ripped apart for a cause bigger than himself. I just always find myself amazed by him in this scene — and the scenes previous, where he’s deflecting Violet’s flirtation — “Help me down, Georgie?” “HELP YA DOWN??” Hahahahaha. Like, he’s so not going there with her silliness. Are ya nuts, Violet? He seems to know what he is and what he’s not. At least at this point in the film. Even now, he won’t sell out his core or suffer fools and this young actor GETS that. In a totally unself-conscious way. He’s a hero of the best kind — a hero who doesn’t know he’s being a hero. Oh, and the moment when Gower realizes what he’s done and literally crushes George to him and George is still crying out about his ear, all afraid? Heartstopping. I love that. He’s still a terrified kid, trying to protect himself, and yet completely sacrificing himself, too. And that Mr. Gower has really smacked him around; there’s blood coming from George’s ear. It’s horrifying, the violence, the helplessness of George in that moment. All he has is his words, his pleas. Can he get through to Gower with just his words?
The scene is physically painful to watch, actually. Like you’re watching an actual beating of an actual kid by an actual hideous drunk. But that’s its brilliance; its greatness. No one holds back. Every year I think about what it must have been like to be Robert Anderson, a kid of that weird, awkward age thumbing through his script and finding THAT scene. A scene requiring that of him. A scene that says — without ever really saying it — “You have to basically be naked here. You must be okay with that. You must do it.” Wow. And he does it. I love that kid.
The scene is one of my favorites in the entire movie. Here’s the excerpt from the screenplay.
BACK TO DRUGSTORE
INT. BACK ROOM – GOWER’S DRUGSTORE – DAY
Gower talking on the telephone. George stands in the doorway.
Why, that medicine should have been there an hour ago. It’ll be over in five minutes, Mrs. Blaine.
He hangs up the phone and turns to George.
Where’s Mrs. Blaine’s box of capsules?
He grabs George by the shirt and drags him into the back room.
GOWER (shaking him)
Did you hear what I said?
Yes, sir, I…
Gower starts hitting George about the head with his open hands. George tries to protect himself as best he can.
What kind of tricks are you playing, anyway? Why didn’t you deliver them right away? Don’t you know that boy’s very sick?
GEORGE (in tears)
You’re hurting my sore ear.
INT. FRONT ROOM DRUGSTORE – DAY
Mary is still seated at the soda fountain. Each time she hears George being slapped, she winces.
INT. BACK ROOM DRUGSTORE – DAY
CLOSE SHOT – GEORGE AND GOWER
You lazy loafer!
Mr. Gower, you don’t know what you’re doing. You put something
wrong in those capsules. I know you’re unhappy. You got that
telegram, and you’re upset. You put something bad in those capsules. It
wasn’t your fault, Mr. Gower . . .
George pulls the little box out of his pocket. Gower savagely
rips it away from him, breathing heavily, staring at the boy
Just look and see what you did. Look at the bottle you took the
powder from. It’s poison! I tell you, it’s poison! I know you
feel bad . . . and .. .
George falters off, cupping his aching ear with a hand. Gower looks at the large brown bottle which has not been replaced on the shelf. He tears open the package, shakes the powder out of one of the capsules, cautiously tastes it, then abruptly throws the whole mess to the table and turns to look at George again. The boy is whimpering, hurt, frightened. Gower steps toward him.
Don’t hurt my sore ear again.
But this time Gower sweeps the boy to him in a hug and, sobbing
hoarsely, crushes the boy in his embrace. George is crying too.
No . . . No . . . No. . .
Don’t hurt my ear again!
Oh, George, George . . .
Mr. Gower, I won’t ever tell anyone. I know what you’re feeling.
I won’t ever tell a soul. Hope to die, I won’t.