It’s a Wonderful Life is a 1946 film directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Henry Travers. It’s traditionally watched on the TV by the whole family at Christmastime, even though only about one hour of the two-hour, fifteen-minute film takes place at that time of the year (it wasn’t even originally intended as a Christmas film), and Christmas is only peripherally depicted during that time.
It is one of the most loved films of all time, even though it was viewed with suspicion by the likes of the FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and Ayn Rand, who regarded it as subtle communist propaganda for its vilifying of Mr. Potter (Barrymore) as an example of the quintessential, greedy capitalist.
Though Capra had left-leaning scriptwriters like Dalton Trumbo and Clifford Odets write drafts (which weren’t used) for the screenplay, he was actually an anti-FDR conservative who was using It’s a Wonderful Life to appeal to people to strengthen their Christian faith. In Capra’s own words, he was trying “to combat a modern trend toward atheism.”
Here are some quotes:
Mary: What’d you wish, George?
George: Well, not just one wish. A whole hatful, Mary. I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that. I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here and go to college and see what they know… And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…
“What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.” –George
George: Mary… [picks up Mary’s robe, which is lying on the ground] Okay, I give up. Where are you?
Mary: Over here in the hydrangea bushes.
George: Here you are. Catch. [He is about to throw her the robe, but reconsiders mischeviously] Wait a minute. What am I doing? This is a very interesting situation! (This line was repeated by Jimmy in the 1940 film “No Time for Comedy”).
Mary: Please give me my robe.
George: Hmmm…A man doesn’t get in a situation like this every day.
Mary: [Getting annoyed] I’d like to have my robe.
George: Not in Bedford Falls, anyway.
Mary: [thrashing around in the bushes] Ouch!
George: Gesundheit. This requires a little thought here.
Mary: George Bailey! Give me my robe!
George: I’ve heard about things like this, but I’ve never thought I would be in one…..not in Bedford Falls anyway.
Mary: Shame on you. I’m going to tell your mother on you.
George: Oh, my mother’s way up the corner there.
Mary: I’ll call the police!
George: They’re way downtown. They’d be on my side, too.
Mary: Then I’m going to scream!
George: Maybe I could sell tickets.
“Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was…Why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? Why…Here, you’re all businessmen here. Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You…you said…What’d you say just a minute ago?…They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait! Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken-down that they…Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about…they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!” –George
Mr. Potter: George, I am an old man and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even. You know just as well as I do that I run practically everything in this town but the Bailey Building and Loan. You know, also, that for a number of years I’ve been trying to get control of it. Or kill it. But I haven’t been able to do it. You have been stopping me. In fact, you have beaten me, George, and as anyone in this county can tell you, that takes some doing. Now take during the depression, for instance. You and I were the only ones that kept our heads. You saved the Building and Loan, I saved all the rest.
George: Yes, well, most people say you stole all the rest.
Mr. Potter: The envious ones say that, George. The suckers.
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” –Clarence Odbody
“You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?” –Clarence
[Inscribed in a copy of Tom Sawyer] “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings, Love Clarence.”
Zuzu: [after a bell on the tree rings] Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.
George: That’s right, that’s right. Attaboy, Clarence!
What the film is really about is how humble people often achieve things far more important than the pretensions with which the rich and powerful impress us. The film begins with the recruitment of a rather bumbling, slow-witted angel (Travers), Clarence Odbody, who must convince George Bailey (Stewart) not to kill himself by making him realize that his humble life, fraught with difficulties as it may have been, is still a life that has achieved terrific things and touched many hearts.
We will see that Clarence, as simple as he is, also achieves a great thing by saving George from his despair. Small people can, and often do, do big things: this is the real message of the movie. In contrast, the rich and powerful big shots often, if not typically, do very little good for the people. These are the Potters of the world, who do much more harm than good.
It’s these Potters that the right-wing ideologues want to defend from ‘vilification.’ What people like J. Edgar Hoover and Ayn Rand didn’t want to admit to is how easy it is to see capitalists like Potter as selfish and mean-spirited: all one has to do is see the effects of their selfishness and greed when they lobby to privatize healthcare, when they support imperialism in the Middle East, when landlords jack up the rent and make housing unaffordable, throwing people out on the streets, only then to put up spikes and criminalize feeding them. One doesn’t have to be a communist to see what’s wrong with the Potters of the world. But I digress…
Back to the movie. Ever since he was a boy, George Bailey has dreamed of doing great things: traveling the world, building things, etc. But he knows the danger of letting his small, humble, and boring, but beloved town of Bedford Falls be taken over by Potter, so he cannot leave and pursue his dreams…especially not when his father dies.
He has a close, affectionate relationship with his family and friends. As a boy in winter, he saves his younger brother, Harry, from drowning in a lake, losing the hearing in his left ear in the process. George is always losing things of his own so he can give to others.
I’m impressed with the kindness and gentleness of his father, who never yells when his sons act inappropriately or wish to do so. (I wish my own, Potter-like father could have been more like George’s.) When the boy gets mad at mean old Potter, his dad deals with his anger in all patience; years later, when Harry is about to go to a party, their dad firmly tells him not to have any gin…but in a gentle voice.
In spite of the Baileys’ harmonious household, though, there’s the stereotyping of the black housemaid, Annie (Lillian Randolph), as a “mammie” (recall, in this connection, the racial stereotyping of Sam in Casablanca). Paul Robeson would hardly have approved, so it becomes harder and harder to link this film with communism. This all goes double for George twice wishing he had a million dollars, then saying, “Hot dog!“
Much of the right-wing ire against this movie is centred around Mr. Potter as a banker; yet the Bailey Building and Loan is also a kind of financial institution, a kind of bank. The contrast isn’t between capitalism and communism–it’s between big, but unethical business and small, but ethical business.
Real communist sympathy would have been represented with a crushing of Potter’s banking empire, a symbolic revolution; but he isn’t even charged with theft of the Baileys’ $8,000 after George’s dim-witted Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) foolishly leaves the money wrapped in Potter’s newspaper. This theft is an unresolved injustice that somehow escaped the notice of the strictly moralistic Production Code, the members of which always insisted on showing good prevailing over evil in cinema, to edify the audience.
No threat to the existing capitalist order is even implied in this movie. The closest that the Bailey Building and Loan comes to being anything like socialism–in providing cheap homes for people like Mr. Martini (William Edmunds) and his family in Bailey Park, so these poor people don’t have to live in Potter’s slums–is, if anything, that compromise between socialism and capitalism known as social democracy…and recall that Capra didn’t even like FDR’s New Deal.
So the right-wing opposition to this film should be seen not in the light of the film itself, but in the light of the attitude of the right-wingers themselves. No form of capitalism is capitalistic enough for them; the ‘free market’ is never ‘free’ enough for them. So any act of generosity from the Building and Loan is deemed ‘communist’ in their tunnel vision.
Many attempts, typically disingenuous ones, have been made by capitalists to present a ‘kinder, gentler’ version of their economic system. One can debate the merits or demerits of their efforts (such as Ocasio-Cortez‘s Green New Deal, or Elizabeth Warren‘s attempts to create a ‘more ethical’ form of capitalism), but the point is that they’re still working within a capitalist framework. Private property remains intact in their systems; commodities are produced to make a profit; capital is still accumulated. All of these things are preserved in It’s a Wonderful Life. The Building and Loan isn’t even remotely socialist, so when right-wingers complain about the film’s ‘communist propaganda,’ they are being dishonest.
The whole point of the film, rather, is to see value in humble things, and to enjoy oneself even in humbling situations. At the high school graduation dance, two Othello and Iago-like boys–the former annoyed that Mary (Reed) would rather talk with George than listen to his endless prating–play a prank on Mary and George while they’re dancing the Charleston: the boys open a crack in the dance floor to expose the swimming pool underneath. When the two dancers fall in the water, instead of getting upset, they just laugh and continue dancing in the water. Their unbreakable high spirits inspire all the others, even ‘Othello’ and ‘Iago,’ to jump in the pool, too.
As George and Mary are walking home in their neighbourhood, they pass by a dilapidated old house. They make wishes and throw rocks, the breaking of windows supposedly making their wishes come true. Mary loves the house, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its terrible state of disrepair. She’d love to live in the house with a family and fix it up. (In fact, this is what she’s wished for: to marry George and raise a family in that house, which of course is a wish come true).
This love of what is low and modest, a wish to redeem it and make it into something good, is a Christian message: “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
While it is true that communists also wish to raise up what is base and humble, it was never Capra’s intention to spread socialist ideas, for the reasons I mentioned above. Recall that anti-communists complain about the “totalitarian” tendencies of the Soviet Union, not what it did to help the poor, because the capitalist is notorious for not caring about the poor.
Mr. Potter’s greed and meanness can be seen in Christian, and not so much anti-capitalist, terms, too. Recall what it says in 1 Timothy 6:10, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Also, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)
So, the battling between George and Potter, from Capra’s religious and conservative point of view, is not a battle between socialism and capitalism, but between the materialist atheist and the Christian who cares about his community. In his despair, George prays, even though he hasn’t normally been a religious man. The ultimate answer to his prayer, in the form of Clarence, gives George the faith in God that Capra was hoping to inspire in people.
That people like J. Edgar Hoover and Ayn Rand (she who considered selfishness to be a virtue [OK, she called it “rational egoism,” but let’s be honest, that expression was always just a euphemism for rationalized selfishness], and who was an atheist), were opposed to this film–when its perceived communism was actually altruism–is an indication of how strong the link actually is between capitalism and selfishness. Recall in this connection a quote on capitalism that is often attributed to John Maynard Keynes.
Still, Capra’s film isn’t trying to make the capitalist seem evil and selfish. Consider Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson), the fellow who always says, “Hee-haw!” He’s a well-loved character throughout the film, and he becomes a successful businessman. His success is envied by George, who wants to leave his dead-end Building and Loan (even if not to join Sam’s company “on the ground floor”), but Sam is in no way portrayed as an evil capitalist.
The right-wing critics of the film, being of the Gordon Gekko type, just don’t like seeing greed and selfishness, as personified in Potter, portrayed in a truthful manner. While many Christians are of the right-wing sort that defend the depredations of the “free market” and of imperialism, including the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, other Christians are of the genuinely altruistic sort that recognize the evil of greed (see the Bible quotes above), the Church having included it among the seven deadly sins.
When a bank run almost ruins the Building and Loan, which happens right at the beginning of George’s and Mary’s honeymoon, the couple is forced to sacrifice their money to prevent their customers from going over to Potter in desperation and get only 50 cents on the dollar. George saves his bank at the end of the working day with only $2 left. Once again, the humble triumph, and proud Potter loses.
Instead of going on a beautiful vacation for their honeymoon, George and Mary have it in their crummy, leaking house during a heavy rainfall. Cabbie Ernie (Frank Faylen) and Police Officer Bert (Ward Bond) do their best to make the newlyweds’ dinner as sweet and romantic as possible, even singing a kind of serenade by the window, out in the rain. Again, modest resources are used to make the honeymoon the best it can be.
When World War II breaks out, it’s George’s younger brother Harry who wins the glory by saving the lives of men on a troop transport by shooting down kamikaze planes; but the contributions of George, Mary, and their mothers, as humble and unenviable as they are, still matter. Potter tempts George with a nice, high-paying job, which would grant him his dream of traveling in Europe, etc., but he quickly comes to his senses and won’t betray the Building and Loan.
When Christmas is approaching, and George loses the $8,000, he has to grovel before bitter old Potter, who–noting George’s life insurance–says he’s worth more dead than alive. Thus begins his suicide ideation. By focusing on his problems rather than his successes (i.e., all the friends he’s made by helping them), George takes his frustrations out on the very people whose happiness he should be most concerned with…his family. Later, he’s at the bridge, ready to jump, and Clarence saves him from suicide by, ironically, faking a suicide attempt of his own. By being saved by George, Clarence saves George.
Then, Clarence has George see a world in which George has never existed. Bert and Ernie don’t know him. Bedford Falls, taken over by Potter, is now “Pottersville,” a sin city littered with strip joints, bars, etc. (In this transformation of the town, we see not only how small people can do great things, that is, we feel the absence of those humble people and their achievements, but we also see the rotten fruits of the greed of rich big shots like Potter. So much for “rational self-interest.”)
Alienation permeates the town. Nick (Sheldon Leonard), the bartender/owner of the pub that was originally his boss Martini’s, is mean not only to George and Clarence, but also to former druggist Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner), a panhandler now, since George as a boy never stopped him from accidentally putting poison in a prescription. Finally, George’s own mother doesn’t recognize him, and Mary, a spinster at the local library, faints when he calls her his wife.
At the end of the ordeal, he sees the value in his life, and wants to live again. In spite of all his misfortunes, he’s thrilled to see “Pottersville” changed back to Bedford Falls. He doesn’t care that he’s going to jail: he just wants to see his family again.
And the movie ends not with an uprising against Potter and his business empire (which, by the way, would have been soooooooooo gratifying!), but with all of George’s friends and neighbours donating money to compensate for the $8,000 that Potter could easily have given back.
This isn’t a socialist ending: it’s an outpouring of charity. In fact, it’s an example of liberal thinking, that is, as liberalism was understood to be back in the mid-1940s. It’s a case of Christian, family values.
It isn’t communism; it’s just a kinder, gentler conservatism.
The irony in all these right-wingers’ attempts to smear the movie as socialist is that they have managed only to smear themselves. Only a Potter would see Potter as slandered.