This Christmas season, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up catching Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life. Starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, Capra’s Christmas classic didn’t start out a classic. Somewhat ignored by audiences and misunderstood by critics in its initial release, the passage of time and many TV airings have given this film the iconic status it deserved from its first screening.
The story, if you somehow have missed the many references to it and parodies of it, goes like this: George Bailey (Stewart), a pillar of Bedford Falls, the community in which he was born and raised, has grown to resent what he sees as a constant thwarting of his dreams for a better life far from his town. Depressed, he considers suicide when dire financial straits imposed on him by his miserly rival, Henry F. Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore, great-uncle of Drew), make him feel that he’s “worth more dead than alive.” As he is on the brink of taking his own life, an angel helps him realize his life’s value by showing him what things would have been like if he had never existed: his town decayed, his family dead (or nonexistent) or destitute, his neighbors and friends lost and aimless. Now having seen what was in front of him all along, he gains a renewed appreciation for it, just as those very friends and neighbors step in to help him out of his dire straits, as he had done for them through the years.
The story is told so well, and has become so familiar, that it is simultaneously shocking and inevitable that contrarians would emerge to attack It’s A Wonderful Life. The more understandable, if still misguided, critics somewhat cynically object to the film’s supposedly saccharine morality. But far more deluded critics object to the film for being immoral. Both critiques are sadly mistaken, rejecting, as they do, a sound morality and a fundamentally decent vision for American society.
Let us dispense with the cynics first, as their complaints are more familiar. It’s A Wonderful Life’s life-affirming message is not universal, they claim, because not everyone is as good a person as George Bailey. He was an essential part of the lives of so many. But, as one writer put it,
what about the rest of the almost six billion people on Earth who’ve never done anything for anyone and consider the time we got an extra piece of chicken in our McNuggets as the high point of our year? Is it OK if we commit suicide if we decide the fate of the entire city doesn’t hinge on our continuing to draw breath?
The short answer is no. One hopes this is just sarcastic self-deprecation, since every life is valuable and touches other lives in ways that we don’t always appreciate. Those who believe that this isn’t true of themselves should be called by the movie’s message to a better life, one in greater communion with others. And one needn’t come to the brink of suicide to have these insights.
A less superficial but still cynical take on It’s A Wonderful Life homes in on the alternate George-free reality that the angel allows him to glimpse. In this reality, the town is named Pottersville, and it’s wholly conquered by Potter and full of bars, gambling houses, and other places of ill repute. Some see this world and are eager to move in. Sonny Bunch, though still a fan of It’s A Wonderful Life’s message (despite, or “heaven help us, maybe even because of” the “commie sympathies” of its communitarian vision), for example, puts it this way:
Truth be told, Potterville [sic] gets kind of a bad rap. Oh, sure, it’s filled with gambling parlors and cheap floozies. But, on the other hand, think of all the gambling parlors and cheap floozies! Isn’t that what makes America great?
It’s true that questing individualism has always been central to the American character, which can express itself in pleasure-seeking. But Pottersville’s pleasures are not harmless ones. The place runs on atomistic individualism and empty pastimes; it’s cruel to the poor and oppressed, and beset by family breakdown and abusive authority figures. It’s essentially devoid of community life, the search for which is at least as important to the American character as individual self-fulfillment is. In Pottersville, the latter has clearly vanquished the former, but individuals still suffer.
And it is this way in part because it resembles the man who, in this world, comes to dominate it utterly: Mr. Potter. Called a “warped, frustrated old man” by George Bailey, he is thwarted in his desire to totally control the town by Bailey’s modest Building & Loan financial institution. Potter nonetheless has his defenders. Our own Andrew Stuttaford gives him credit for what we must admit is an impressive financial savvy:
These days this crippled Croesus would be praised as a role model and profiled in People as an inspiration to the “physically challenged.” Without even the help of the ADA, Potter has triumphed over disability and made a large fortune. He is a lender of last resort, and, for some poorer citizens, a landlord. . . . References to the “rabble” and the need for working-class thrift would point to politics that are reassuringly conservative if not exactly compassionate. His approach to commerce is sound. Charity and business should not be muddled up, credit must be checked and loans repaid.
Potter’s failings, however, arise from aspects of his character that go beyond his businessman’s prowess. In the reality where George does exist, Potter precipitates the man’s personal crisis not by driving him out of business through fair means but by stealing money from the Building & Loan and refusing to give it back. Potter persists in keeping it even after seeing that Bailey is willing to accept the blame for its loss, even though it was not Bailey’s fault. Meanwhile, in George-free reality, Potter has not merely conquered the town economically, in an assertion of unbridled monopolistic hubris; he has had it named after himself, implying a concomitant political domination. Supporters of free markets ought to be uncomfortable with this kind of cronyism.
Enough, then, with the cynics. A far more distressing critique of It’s A Wonderful Life comes from Patrick Deneen, a political-theory professor at the University of Notre Dame. In a misguided, contrarian reading of Capra’s communitarian masterpiece, Deneen asserts that George Bailey, its hero, is actually a villain. He bases this on three tenuous threads: Bailey’s character, his accomplishments, and the result of those accomplishments.
Deneen first claims that George’s desire to leave Bedford Falls shows a “man who persistently hates the town that gives him sustenance, who craves nothing else but to get out of Bedford Falls and remake the world.” Deneen is correct that this character trait is present from Bailey’s earliest moments on screen. But Deneen is wrong to imply that the movie endorses this characteristic. It is, in fact, part of George’s journey to reject it, and by the end of the movie he sees how foolish he was to dream of things far off when he had so much that was near and dear to him.
A perfect example of this comes near the movie’s end. He and his wife Mary (Reed) live in a decrepit house of sentimental value to them. But we learn that, despite George’s grand aspirations to build and repair things, it was Mary who did most of the work making the place livable. She does not do so perfectly, and, in his darkest moments, he hates the house, blaming the family’s health problems on “this drafty old barn.” He is particularly vexed by a broken bit of the staircase that he constantly removes by accident. But after his change of heart, when confronted by the same broken bit of railing, he kisses it. The moment suggests that George will probably soon begin helping his wife fix the house, refocusing his wanderlust vision homeward to improve what is near to him instead.
Ah, but heaven forbid this happen, if Deneen is right. For he argues that George, though thwarted in his desire to leave Bedford Falls and achieve grand things in the wider world, transforms Bedford Falls instead — for the worse. Deneen characterizes Bailey’s desire “to build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities” and “build skyscrapers a hundred stories high” and “bridges a mile long” as proof that he
represents the vision of post-war America: the ambition to alter the landscape so as to accommodate modern life, to uproot nature and replace it with monuments of human accomplishment, to re-engineer life for mobility and swiftness, one unencumbered by permanence, one no longer limited to a moderate and comprehensible human scale.
And Deneen argues that Bailey doesn’t simply believe this but has also put it into practice, via Bailey Park, the housing development funded by his Building & Loan. Deneen casts aspersions on this place, while acknowledging that the rental apartments Potter owns are decidedly worse. Bailey Park has “no trees, no sidewalks, no porches, but instead wide streets and large yards with garages,” he says. It’s marred by the “absence of informal human interaction . . . in gross contrast to the vibrancy of Bedford Falls.” This is misleading.
For one, Bailey Park is a new development, so it’s unfair to judge it for not having the comforts and charms of a settled neighborhood. Plus, the homes in Bailey Park are not, in fact, that far apart, and they do have front porches. We also don’t know how far Bailey Park is from the center of Bedford Falls. It may be nearby — in one scene, the bar owner named Martini needs a car to drive from downtown to Bailey Park mainly because he has to move his things from his old residence to the new. The valued presence of others in Bailey Park is not the impossibility Deneen assumes, nor is the fact that the place is new a strike against it. At one point, Bedford Falls itself was new.
Deneen’s exaggeration of the evils of Bailey Park is a prelude to his most staggering assertion about its character. The development is not merely an affront to the previous modes of life in Bedford Falls, he argues, but an active desecration of the past, akin to a Poltergeist film:
Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. Not only does George raze the trees, but he commits an act of sacrilege. He obliterates a sacred symbol of Bedford Fall’s connection with the past, the grave markers of the town’s ancestors. George Bailey’s vision of a modern America eliminates his links with his forebears, covers up the evidence of death, supplies people instead with private retreats of secluded isolation, and all at the expense of an intimate community, in life and in death.
Deneen bases this on shaky assumptions. Late in the movie, when Bailey thinks that the glimpse of a reality without him is some kind of trick, he retraces his steps and becomes convinced that the trick has something to do with the last person he saw before his vision began. This person is Martini, the above-mentioned bar owner and Bailey Park resident, so George goes looking in the latter place. Instead, he finds the cemetery. But why does Deneen assume that George had built his housing development atop a graveyard? Earlier in the film, we get this description of the land on which Bailey Park has since been built:
Fifteen years ago, a half-dozen houses stuck here and there. . . . There’s the old cemetery, squirrels, buttercups, daisies. Used to hunt rabbits there myself. Look at it today. Dozens of the prettiest little homes you ever saw.
The conclusion Deneen draws from this information is the one least charitable to the film: that George Bailey literally desecrated his ancestors as part of his relentless striving for novelty. But this supposed fact is never explicit in the movie. The description of the land that became Bailey Park suggests a capaciousness that could welcome development without harming the structures already there. If people used that land for purposes besides burying the dead before George Bailey got his hands on it, surely there is more room there than Deneen believes. It’s also possible that the old cemetery is simply that: old, no longer used, no longer expanding, and not interfered with — at least, not in the reality with George Bailey in it.
A more reasonable inference, one in keeping with the film, is that the reason George Bailey is surprised to find the cemetery (in the reality without him) is that it has expanded because of his absence. We have direct evidence for this: The only headstone we actually see there belongs to Harry Bailey, George’s brother, whose life George saved in reality but who, in this nightmare world, has died. Martini as well, who in the nightmare world is no longer the owner of a thriving bar, may have perished from the shabby living conditions in the slums Potter owns. In actuality, George either directly saves or improves the lives of many people — the real-life cemetery doesn’t contain all their headstones.
It’s worth questioning Deneen’s notion that life in Bedford Falls is harder because of Bailey Park. Pottersville, not Bailey Park, resembles the modern anomie that Deneen decries. Whatever George’s stated desires about building big things, his ties to the community and his altruism prevented him from building a soulless hellscape. And this was before his moral transformation.
After this epiphany, we see that George is capable of taking the best about the past and marrying it to the best promises for the future. His Bailey Park is a welcome addition to Bedford Falls, not a separation from it, and as a community it can probably foster the kinds of relationships that make life meaningful. We are left with the conviction that America needs more men like George Bailey.
A moral vision for America that rejects the messages of It’s a Wonderful Life is a sad one indeed. So this year, when you watch Capra’s masterpiece, say “Bah, humbug” to the critics and follow the example of George. Delight in what’s near and dear to you: family, friends, even a broken bit of your dear old home.