by Emrys Westacott
This Christmas millions of people will no doubt watch Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. In many cases this will be their umpteenth viewing. The film is a popular Christmas entertainment for many reasons. The main action takes place on Christmas Eve. The final scene is of family and friends singing carols and making merry round a Christmas tree. The story is uplifting since love triumphs over despair and virtue is rewarded. Like Christmas itself, part of its appeal is nostalgic: fairy lights, tinsel and turkey are indelibly associated with an enjoyable time in childhood; and Bedford Falls, the small town where the action takes place, is presented as a friendly, spirited, cohesive (albeit almost entirely white) community where everyone knows their neighbors and whose center hasn’t yet been hollowed out by highways and suburban malls. Last but not least, there are angels. True, the angels are portrayed humorously, tongue in cheek. But the plot does hinge on their intervention. So the singing of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” at the end can be understood as expressing a kind of gratitude for and faith in benevolent supernatural powers that are watching over us and looking out for us.
Given all that, cynics and skeptics, especially those who have not seen the film for a long time, are often inclined to dismiss the film as so much sentimental slush. This is a mistake. For the film is not primarily about Christmas or angels. It’s about money. And it’s about the danger to society if avarice, greed, and egotism come to rule the roost. Just possibly, this is a morality tale that might still have relevance in Donald Trump’s America.
The central conflict in the drama is between George Bailey (James Stewart), who runs a small, struggling Building and Loan company, and Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a rich banker and slumlord. Potter, we are told at the outset, is “the meanest and richest man in the county.” His guiding passions are for making money and wielding power. He is contemptuous of people like George who, since they care for things other than the bottom line–e.g.helping ordinary people to become homeowners–are not true businessmen, but “losers.” As for the hardworking, ordinary folk, Potter dismisses them as “rabble,” or “suckers,” and with a glancing ethnic slur against immigrants, "garlic eaters.” His limited, self-centered outlook is underscored by the closed carriage in which he travels, by the wheelchair to which he is confined, and by his only ever appearing inside the confines of paneled offices.
Potter’s callousness toward others is explained as the actions of “a frustrated old man who is lacking something.” That something seems to be friends. His lack of friends is mentioned several times and is linked to his extreme egotism. When asked to show concern for the children of people who have been dispossessed, he coldly replies, “they’re not my children.” To him, other people are simply a means to his own mercenary ends. In one angry exchange, George nails what seems to be Potter’s essence: “You think the whole world revolves round you and your money.” In short, Potter is a greedy, callous, self-centered egotist without any real friends. Remind you of anyone?
George, of course has all the virtues that Potter lacks. He is idealistic, romantic, gregarious, selfless, and community-minded. But he’s not a saint. Indeed, he is as engaging as he is precisely because he has human-all-too-human failings. The other great conflict running through the film is between George and himself. There is George the ambitious dreamer who with more than a trace of egoism lays out his plans to go places and build things, and who can’t help expressing contempt for his father’s “shabby office” and for the “crummy little town” of Bedford Falls, from both of which he plans to escape as soon as he can. And there is George the selfless, other-oriented pillar of the community who repeatedly sacrifices his dreams because he feels an obligation to help his brother, his father’s company, or the ordinary townsfolk.
On the day of the main action, Christmas Eve 1945, George’s Uncle Billy accidentally mislays $8,000 in a folded newspaper that he puts into the hands of Potter who, true to form, holds onto the money and seizes the chance to break George and his company. George facing failure, bankruptcy, and possibly prison, stumbles around yelling at his uncle, his wife, his kids, and his kids’ teacher. He abases himself before Potter in a futile plea for help, gets drunk, crashes a car, and ends up standing on a bridge contemplating suicide. As the narrative of his life that we have followed from childhood to this moment makes clear, his despair is not only over the missing money. It is also a welling up to the surface of his frustration, disappointment and bitterness over the ever-widening gap between his dreams and his reality.
Money is at the heart of all this. George saves diligently for several years so that he can go to college, but then helps his brother go instead. After his father’s death, he agrees to stay on as head of the Building and Loan company since otherwise the company will be forced to fold, and people dreaming of becoming homeowners will be forced to rent from Potter, who will doubtless use his monopoly power to fleece them further. On his wedding day, a run on the bank leads George’s customers to seek to cash in their shares in the company, and George has to use money saved for his honeymoon to appease them. After Uncle Billy’s blunder, George’s thought of suicide is triggered by the prospect of bankruptcy, and pushed to the brink by Potter’s jibe that his only remaining asset, a life insurance policy, means that he’s worth more dead than alive. All of George’s problems ultimately come down to money–or more precisely, to a lack of money. This oppressive reality is nicely underlined by Clarence the angel’s offhand remark that “we don’t use money in heaven.”
Two scenes in the film are especially significant with respect to the central theme: the bank-run episode, and the nightmare vision of how Bedford Falls would be but for George.
A run on the bank causes it to call in its loans to George’s company. So when the smalltime shareholders that George’s company serves rush to cash in their shares, he doesn’t have the funds to meet their demands. Their attitude at first is Potteresque: pure self-interest; and George’s initial appeal to the angels of their better natures makes no impression. The first man he deals with insists on a full withdrawal.
Potter’s dark shadow lurks in the background. He has seen an opportunity and is offering to buy people’s shares in George’s company at a knock-down price, which would give him control of the company, enabling him to shut it down and up his rents. Potter is capitalism incarnate, never satisfied, driven by an insatiable will to wealth and power, which in economic terms means a drive toward monopoly. As George points out, he already controls the bank, the bus line, and the department stores. He wants complete control of housing as well.
George urges the crowd not to be taken in. “Potter isn’t selling,” he says,” he’s buying”– i.e. literally buying up the town; metaphorically, buying their souls. To Potter, people are just sources of revenue, means to his avaricious ends. George holds up a radically different moral perspective centered on community, friendship, and solidarity. “We’ve got to stick together,” he tells the crowd. “We’ve got to have faith in one another.” Eventually George, who, is blessed, after all, with the endearing charm of a Jimmy Stewart, persuades people to temper their self-interest and limit their demands. He himself personifies the sort of faith and trust that he calls for and which, ideally, would characterize all human interactions, even business relationships. A woman to whom he is lending twenty dollars offers to sign a paper. “You don’t have to sign anything,” he tells her. The transaction is a promise made between friends, not an abstract legal contract between parties of the first and second part.
The historical context in which It’s a Wonderful Life appeared is key to understanding the general significance of this scene. It was only a year after the end of the second world war. Throughout the war, the US had been united behind a single cause, with many willingly making tremendous sacrifices for the greater good. A pressing question in 1946 is whether such collective values and community spirit can be sustained, or whether they will shrivel as the country, without any grand unifying purpose, reverts to the individualistic values of unfettered capitalism.
The other key passage in the film is the one in which George is shown how things would be in Bedford Fall had he never lived. In this “nightmare,” as the scene is sometimes labelled, Bedford Falls has become Pottersville, a vulgar commercial strip devoted to self-indulgence (sex) and escapism (liquor). The character of the inhabitants is different, too. Instead of the cheerful camaraderie he is used to, George encounters cynicism, unfriendliness, callousness, and suspicion. Nick the barman squirts a brokendown Mr. Gower in the face and the watching crowd are highly amused. George’s mother is cold and suspicious; his otherwise would-be wife Mary is fearful. Both are shown to be living solitary lives.
The implication is clear. Quite apart from the specific good things George has done, such as saving his brother from drowning, he has also, it turns out, been a bulwark against Potter and his values, against egotism and greed. Without his countervailing influence, Potter has gained total control of the town and remade it in his own image.
We are all familiar with the trickle-down theory of economic prosperity, the article of faith that conservatives use to justify tax cuts for the rich. There has never been much evidence to support this theory, and It’s a Wonderful Life suggests, plausibly enough, that if you give the rich more they will use this extra wealth and power to…..…….increase their wealth and power. But George’s vison of an alternative reality also suggests what one might call a trickle-down theory of moral character. According to this view, the values, attitudes, and behaviour of those who dominate in a community will come to shape and be reflected in the beliefs, character and conduct of the people they control. They will also be apparent in the surrounding culture.
In the age of Trump, one can only hope fervently that this theory, like the trickle-down economic theory, is false. If anything, Trump is actually worse than Potter. He is an ignorant, shallow, greedy, bullying egoist with a severe narcissistic personality disorder. This much is blindingly obvious. His Republican enablers in Congress are so wedded to their own power and so in hock to their wealthy donors that they lack the moral fibre to provide the needed countervailing checks and balances. So if anything trickles down from this bunch we are in trouble. Then again, if the trickling goes the other way the would be, if anything, even more dispiriting!
As I noted at the outset, part of the appeal of It’s a Wonderful Life is its nostalgic representation of small town America when such towns were still vibrant, before they had been ruined by outsourcing, suburban malls, online trading, and other macro-economic trends. It is notable how many scenes in the film show dense crowds of people intensely engaged with one another, climaxing in the singsong around the Christmas tree, a far cry from the world of lost community described by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Trump’s campaign promise to “make America great again” also appeals to a nostalgia for a remembered state of affairs closer to what is portrayed in the film than the reality experienced by many today. Yet there is an obvious irony here. For what killed Bedford Falls as a genuine community was the triumph of Potter–that is of avarice, greed and other Trumpian values; in short ,of just the sort of unregulated capitalism that Trump champions. As Gary Kamiya observed,
“We all live in Pottersville now. Bedford Falls is gone. The plucky little Savings and Loan closed down years ago, just like in George’s nightmare. Cleaned up, his evil eyebrows removed, armed with a good PR firm, Mr. Potter goes merrily about his business, “consolidating” the George Baileys of the world.”
Of course, the portrait of Bedford Falls is highly idealized, as is the victory of the little guy over the well-funded forces of darkness. This is, after all, Hollywood and Jimmy Stewart. But just possibly the spectacle of Trump and all he represents will eventually, and perhaps even quite soon, so disgust people that it will trigger a momentous shift in America’s political culture toward a more public-spirited, egalitarian and communitarian vision of what we might be. Pessimists will say that for that to happen we’ll need at least an archangel to come down and help us, as Clarence helps George. But we should remember, there are two “miracles” in the film. One is the supernatural intervention of the angel Clarence. The other is the concerted action people of in the community who at the end rally round to support common decency in its fight against egotism and greed.
 Gary Kamiya, “All Hail Pottersville,” Salon, 12-22-01.