Every year, American television audiences are treated with what has become an evergreen holiday ritual: watching Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. It has long topped the charts of favorite Christmas movies because each time we see it, the better angels of our nature get their wings. Instead of the individualistic consumerism that dominates the yuletide airwaves, we experience the very community sentiment that the ads often drown out. Christmas time, Charles Dickens once wrote, is a "kind, forgiving, charitable time, the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers." Capra's film opens us to such egalitarian good will and reminds us that being truly rich has nothing to do with money or stuff. While the villain Henry Potter may own most of what's worth owning in Bedford Falls, George Bailey is actually the richest man in town because the community that he dedicated his life to will come to his aid in his darkest hour. Capra's cinematic vision of good neighborliness and community battling those who would profit by destroying both allows us to lasso the best of the American spirit and draw it straight into our hearts. Commentators over the years have used the film to think about their times and this year, faced with an economic situation in which the Potters of this world seem to have us caught in their web, we need its eternal hopefulness more than ever.
Over the years, some critics have heaped scorn on Capra for being a melodramatic sentimentalist, for appealing to the heart rather than the head. But what they miss is that though hopeful about Americans' innate capacity for goodness, Capra was by no means naive about the ways that the powerful pull the strings in our society. Indeed his populist films shed light on aspects of social inequality that are just as important now as they were during and after the Great Depression.
Capra's films championed the little guy in epic battles against the powerful. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), the tuba-playing hero had to fend off a slick lawyer, John Cedar, who was embezzling money and cooking the books; in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), the hero struggled to save the spirit of American democracy from a political boss, James Taylor, who profited from rampant pay-to-play corruption; in Meet John Doe (1941), the hero was just an average guy, whose populist wisdom was bottled and funneled into a twisted Astroturf political movement that a media mogul, D.B. Norton, wanted to use to control democracy. In 1946, Capra made It's a Wonderful Life, and had its iconic everyman, George Bailey, do battle against Potter, who personifies the economic inequality that continually threatens the promise of America. In each film, the hero fights not only against the powerful, but against the temptation to put his own self-interests above the public good. With each, Capra tried to inspire audiences to regenerate a scared and atomized America into a community that would to stick up for the little guy, fight for what is right and be better neighbors to one another.
All you have to do is look at the news lately -- the recent revelations about those who profited from the financial crisis would suffice -- to see why the message of It's a Wonderful Life is so important for us to take to heart. Bankers, these days, like old Potter, seem to be getting their way in just about everyway. After crashing the world economy, the lords of finance got richer and the public got stuck with the bill. In the face of this power, it might be tempting to give up and be more like them, to adopt their selfish ways. But Capra's film warns us that taking this path -- this ever-so-seductive Ayn Randian way of viewing the world that was starting to infect the American imagination after WWII -- leads only to moral and social tragedy. For this is a movie about how making the long-term good of the community more important than the short-term good of the individual leads to the greater richness of both.
George Bailey is a community lender who thinks more of people than he does of profit, and through him, the audience learns many economic and moral lessons. The first comes when George is forced to take over the Bailey Building and Loan after his father dies. He learns that Big Money (Potter) will always profit from personal misery and that people in Bedford Falls will suffer at the hands of a profit-driven financial system if he doesn't put off his own dreams of seeing the world. Every time George puts his self-interest on hold for the sake of the community, we see the pain on his face as he fights his selfish desires. The second lesson comes just as he is about to set off on his honeymoon with Mary and there is a run on the banks. Again, he chooses community over self. As he doles out his own money to ease the panic, he tells his neighbors that the real value of any community goes beyond its available capital: "you're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in the safe. The money's not here... your money's in Joe's house... that's right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and, and a hundred others." But this community value only has worth if they look beyond their narrow self-interest. "We've got to have faith in each other," Jimmy Stewart implores them. Not everyone does. Charlie panics and sells Potter his shares, and Tom withdraws the full $242 from his personal account, but most of the folks at the Building and Loan see that to act selfishly would mean to foreclose on one another.
Alas, not everyone in Bedford Falls is as community-minded. When people lose their heads during the Depression, Potter is able to buy -- or as George says "to steal" -- almost everything in town, from the banks to the bus lines. Unable to crush the Building and Loan, Potter tempts George to sell out his principles. He works on George's dreams of a better life than the one he ekes-out helping the community, building his resentment for being "trapped into frittering away his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters," for choosing to value community over his own self-interest. He offers to hire him into the comfortable life of the upper-1%, but George says no and continues to do the right thing. During the iconic noir fantasy sequence of the film, fulfilling George's wish that he were dead, he and the audience get to see what a town of people acting only in their self-interest would look like. Over the years, many have suggested that Capra was showing the world as it really was or at least, in the flash-forward spirit of A Christmas Carol, what might happen to America if men like Potter went unchecked by the not-for-profit spirit of community. Small towns would be named after the bankers that owned them. Power would be concentrated in the hands of the rich and fewer people would realize the American Dream. Without the hope provided by fair banking and financing designed to help the community rather than just the financiers, things are dark indeed. Houses never get fixed up, loved ones are not saved, families never get started, people drink to get drunk and Angels never get their wings.
This is the vision of society that Capra did everything he could as a filmmaker to get the audience to root against in their hearts, for in a land where the lords of finance and their iron law of self-interest goes unopposed, there is no love, no autonomy and very little possibility for average folks to pursue their happiness. Like George Bailey, we are frightened by a world run by men like Potter, and so we are overjoyed when our hero is able to return to his battered old home and take stock in his beautiful family and the community he cares so much about. Having passed this final test, we learn with him that only by thinking of others more than your own portfolio can you become the "richest man in town." So satisfying is this message to my inner sense of fairness and justice that I cry like little Zuzu every time I see it.
But Capra makes us earn our relief at the end of the film and it leaves a strange aftertaste; because if we think about it, Potter gets away with it. He pockets the lost money and goes right back to his web, waiting for the next moment to spring and suck the surplus value out of community, waiting for the moment when investing in community loses out to self-interested individualism. We know this rings true: none of the Potters responsible for the 2008 crash have been held to account for their crimes; the banks and the people who ran them got away with it. So when you get a chance to watch It's a Wonderful Life this holiday season, remember that the Potters and their parasitic ilk, those who own most of what is worth owning in each of our Bedford Falls, are still out there waiting for people to lose their faith in community so they can buy what's left of it. In a world where austerity reigns and communities are allowed to wither so that Potter's assets are preserved, it might be tempting to give up the fight to preserve what is left of our commonwealth and sell out to self-interested individualism while Potter is buying. What Capra warns us every year, if we care to hear, is that we can't afford to.
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