It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?
The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and, if reviews were not wholly complimentary, they were not hostile. Capra made the film, he said, to “combat the modern trend toward atheism”. The director’s conservative Republicanism might lead one to expect him to hew closer to Lionel Barrymore’s unadulterated malignancy as Mr Potter than the civic-mindedness of James Stewart’s George Bailey. But Capra’s libertarian distrust of big government, and avowal of the hard-working, up-from-the-boot-straps ethic, extended to wielders of power and wealth generally.
Perhaps the wielding of an overtly Christian ethic (albeit shamelessly cutesified, as evidenced by Henry Travers’ wingless angel Clarence Oldbody) was key to Capra identifying the responsibility of man for his fellow man, at the expense of pursuing any and all means to further his own goals (indeed, George Bailey is explicitly denied such avenues, either by fate or his own conscience). In Capra’s philosophy, “man is essentially good, a living atom of divinity” and this is most acutely expressed through his (man’s) compassion for others. The result is an idealised, small-town vision of Americana (one free from the tentacles of federal dictates) that persists as an impossible utopia at the end of an unlikely rainbow. This is why It’s a Wonderful Life is preeminent in his idealistic canon; it sprinkles on top the even more ungraspable “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All Men” ethic, one that eludes most even in the season for which it is allotted (“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends”).
Some have pointed out the narrative parallels between It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, and that’s certainly appropriate to the final reel’s visit to a world absent of George Bailey (memorably homaged by Robert Zemeckis in Back to the Future Part II, itself a series that nostalgified small town America). But the trials of George throughout also have a strong flavour (less extreme, admittedly) of the book of Job. A good man, seemingly buffeted without rhyme or reason by the tribulations of fate. All George wants to do, like Billy Liar, is get out of town He wants to travel, to explore, and make his first million by the time he is 30.
So he is punished, despite being the dutiful son (much more dutiful than his brother, Todd Karns’ Harry, who traipses through the picture nauseatingly excused from any hardships – including on the battlefield, it seems – and is apparently to be congratulated for his lack of perseverance). George’s priorities are skewed, simply by having aspirations beyond his immediate surroundings.
When he inelegantly opines to his father (Samuel S Hinds) that he doesn’t want to be “cooped up for the rest of his life in a shabby little office”, there’s an implicit condemnation on Capra’s part of those who – intentionally or not – look down on those average Joes earning an honest (unquestioning) living. George’s dad actually deserves a cutting remark or two, as he has already attempted to passive-aggressively persuade George to stay on at Bailey Building and Loan (the one barrier between the community and mercenary mandibles of Potter). Bailey Sr makes George feel guilty for his dreams, and then gets his own way by promptly stroking out as George is on the verge of departing.
The sense of the presiding will of the Fates persists throughout the angels’ telling Clarence of his new subject’s life story. Those who are ostensibly for George prove to be the biggest thorns in his side. It’s a tale of a man who stands up for others but is too damn nice (or weak?) to stand up for himself. There’s Harry, the little weasel who blithely doesn’t care a jot that his brother has to toil away and underachieve while he reaps all the rewards (“My brother – the richest man in town!”; the confounded cheek!)
This is most evident with Mary (Donna Reed). It’s easy to see why George is smitten, and Stewart and Reed have marvellous chemistry. Witness the masterful scene where she and George silently declare love for each other while he is taking a phone call (and bringing business to town). Reed also gets the funniest line in the picture (“He’s making violent love to me, mother!”)
But, if one looks at the web Mary weaves to entrap George as her own, one might conclude she was some kind of sinister sorceress bent on his destruction. No sooner has he declared his intentions to better himself and broaden his horizons, than Mary casts a spell to ensure this never comes to pass (“Remember the night we broke the windows in the old house? This is what I wished for!”) Indeed, one might conclude it was her magical design that killed George’s father and ensured Bailey Jr remained in Bedford Falls.
It is Mary who volunteers their savings to the selfish, small-minded townsfolk George has done nothing but help (except Grandma Walton; she’s alright). At one point it is said of George that he “doesn’t think of himself”, but he clearly does, and harbours resentment that, as he predicts, causes him eventually to “bust”. It is Mary who induces George to live in their rundown home (“like living in a refrigerator”) and who has bound him hand-and-foot with countless children (“Why do we have to have all these kids?”). She drains the life force from him; he has prematurely aged, with Mad Max grey temples, despite only a few years passing, while she is unchanged.
Mary is instrumental in shattering George’s dreams, arguably much more so than the machinations of cartoon villain Potter. The vision Clarence presents to George has the expected shock treatment effect (“Get me back to my wife and kids”), but of course it does; it was tried and tested on Ebenezer Scrooge, and Clarence speaks of it as a tried-and-tested last resort. There’s a nagging feeling at the back of this is that Capra spends an enormous amount of time building up a glass half empty picture of George’s life (yes, yes, but he has friends and a loving wife and adorable children and they more than make up for some incomplete dreams and unfulfilled goals of being a great and travelled architect) and justifies it by asking “What if it was wholly empty?”
Highly dramatic, yes, but George’s pressing question throughout has been one of what he might have achieved. And who knows what greatness might have awaited him? It doesn’t serve Capra’s design, which is to encourage the common man to forsake ambition. George might have failed thoroughly, but he might have done good out there in the world that far eclipsed the wonders he works in Bedford Falls, given half a chance (rather than be comforted by Pottersville, President Bailey might have helped the whole nation).
That would hardly snap a suicidal man out of his funk, but thematically it is every bit as urgent a preoccupation of the picture. Or, maybe, George would have done all those great things but never found true love (in which case he might “selfishly” have admitted his more limited path was the better one). Or, further still, perhaps George would have flunked it out there, all talk and no follow-through, so something is better than nothing. As it stands, one night’s festive salvation is unlikely to dispel all doubt from George’s mind. On Christmas morn he will awake with a thumping hangover and a thick lip. And then, all that’s left on Boxing Day is leftovers. And reality dawning. Conversely, it would be entirely understandable, given the loaded vision presented by Clarence, if, rather than emphasising that George is important, he was induced to believe that he is all-important, such is the decisive effect on the happiness of everyone he has ever encountered. They are revealed as abject, mad, or dead, without him.
We are told that Potter is “sick in his mind and sick in his soul”, and it seems the FBI suggested the picture was guilty of a common Commie trick of attempting to “discredit bankers”. Capra does a convincing hatchet job, and it is notable how much of the conversation between Potter and George feeds into themes present in the current financial crisis. Potter suggests the exerting of pressure on townsfolk, to persuade them to pay their mortgages, to which George responds that many of them are out of work. The Bailey enterprise is constantly in danger of going under, taking those who depend on it at the same time. When there is a run on the bank, it is only George’s external means that provide a stopgap. While Potter’s model is to keep people dependent through charging extortionate rents as a slum landlord, George’s home ownership ethos might be seen as (in perverted form, but nevertheless part of the same idealised aspiration) leading to the subprime mortgage crisis.
George also does not avail himself of the classic means of laying the foundations for a country’s financial ruin, or at least depression (he holds no intangible assets; “No securities, no stocks, no bonds”). One might argue that it is the refusal of a George-type to challenge Potter head-on (notably, it is Billy’s crowing over Potter that “George fought The Battle of Bedford Falls” that leads to the tidal wave that engulfs our hero) that allows the villain to persist unchallenged past the end credits.
Justice does not come calling for Potter; he is allowed to make off with stolen goods, even, His verdict of “Sentimental hogwash!” is seen to reign supreme and even entitle him. (It’s interesting to note that, for all his avariciousness, Potter is set to return the money until he sees how he can turn the situation to his own ends.) It’s easy to see a critique of unfettered capitalism in Potter. Yet, under Capra’s rules, no one should impede him, certainly not in a state-sanctioned manner. The only relief from Potter’s rule can come in setting one’s sights on nobler, non-material things.
As with the most capable of villains, Potter is also highly perceptive. George may be a “boil on his neck” but he recognises that his nemesis “hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do”. George has allowed resentment to blight his life, suppressing his denial, and Capra’s ending retroactively condemns his ambition. One might suggest that Potter is at least honest about his motives.
There is also the convenience of George’s financial remedy. Most of the townsfolk seem to be gossips and ne’er do wells, making the deus ex machina charity pot money all the more unlikely. Had George’s predicament happened a few weeks later, in sobering January, perhaps Potter’s pronouncement of a “discontented, lazy rabble”, the consequence of lending to one’s friends, and the experience we saw with the run on the bank, would have been the harsh sermon of the day.
In the alternate reality where George escapes the town, perhaps his ideal companion would have been Gloria Grahame’s sex-on-legs Violet. It’s notable that, although she is coded as the bad girl (marked by the gossip of an extra-marital affair with George), she is as unable to fulfil her dreams as George. She, like George, appears to accept her town-bound, wholesomely restricted fate come the picture’s close.
Another questionable aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life relates to the supernatural influences, designed to inspire faith but operating to more ambiguous effect. There are the angels, of course, but there is also Capra’s raven, entering scenes as a portent of doom for George. It adds to the sense that he is being puppeteered by forces beyond his control. The ostensible forces of light are, it seems aspirant ex-humans scaling the rungs of angelhood. As such they are happy to be rude about one of their juniors (Clarence has the “IQ of a rabbit”), and Clarence himself is only in this for his wings. We hear this repeatedly; he doesn’t actually care about George’s fate, whatever Travers’ benign and bumbling performance may suggest to the contrary.
The key to the appeal of It’s a Wonderful Life, however, is that it epitomises exactly the kind of sentimental hogwash Potter so reviles. By milking the emotional teat of the audience, and doing it so expertly, Frank Capra gives voice to cold, harsh realities but then ensures they are held in check. The stark misery that repeatedly rains down on George Bailey throughout is thrown into sharp belief by spotlighting all his blessings, so much so that no one has to worry about what happens next, or ponder what might have happened he had been given half a chance.