On Christmas Eve I had the opportunity, after many years of trying, to finally sit down and watch the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life all the way through in one complete sitting. I had been trying to put the current economic mess, the financial meltdown, the recession, and the looming possibility of a depression out of my mind for the holidays and was doing a fairly good job of it until this movie threw it all squarely back into my face.
It’s a Wonderful Life was made in 1945 by director Frank Capra, with James Stewart starring in the leading role. I had always thought it was nothing more than a cute holiday tale about a small American town named Bedford Falls and an average American guy named George Bailey. But after seeing the entire movie on Wednesday I did some research, which confirmed my suspicion that Capra’s intent in making the movie was for it to be a post-Depression era commentary about unrestrained, out of control capitalism. Accordingly, It’s A Wonderful Life turns out to be quite applicable to our situation today.
George Bailey was a socially responsible businessman who ran a profitable “building and loan” company in Bedford Falls. His business consisted of building affordable houses that developed into community-oriented neighborhoods and he also provided the necessary financing. Across town was Bailey’s rival, Henry Potter, the town’s big banker. Potter didn’t like Bailey very much. It seems that Potter was also the town’s biggest landlord, providing small, overpriced sub-standard apartments designed to keep people locked into renting forever. In contrast, Bailey’s building and loan company was designed to provide secure and affordable home ownership to average people. This is what caused the friction between Bailey and Potter and it resulted in Mr. Potter wanting to see George Bailey gone.
When an $8,000 deposit that Bailey’s company needed to make into Potter’s bank got lost, Potter found the money but kept it without telling Bailey. He then employed a series of dirty tricks to try to ruin Bailey and drive him out of business. First, he used the missed deposit as an excuse to call in Bailey’s business loan. When the townspeople pooled their money to cover the payment temporarily, Potter then tried to have the sheriff arrest Bailey by claiming that Bailey had stolen the money.
Poor George Bailey got so nervous and depressed over all of this that he started taking his frustrations out on his wife and kids, he started to consider himself a failure, he started wishing that he had never been born and began thinking about killing himself, which he would have done except for the fortunate arrival and intervention of Clarence - his guardian angel.
In response to George’s request, Clarence (with some divine help from above) grants George a vision of a world into which he had never been born. As one would expect, the vision includes a series of negative personal outcomes as a result of George Bailey’s absence. But beyond that are the repercussions to the fair community of Bedford Falls as it becomes the nightmarish “Potterville” instead.
Without the mitigating effects of a socially responsible George Bailey, Mr. Potter, the greedy banker, has taken over the town and has caused it to sink into a world of vice, alcoholism, despair and social decay in contrast to the vibrant family-friendly community that it might otherwise have been. In one particular scene Bailey takes a cab ride and the driver is a family man whom Bailey had known in the other version of the town. Bailey asks him, “How are your wife and daughter doing?” The driver replies, “Ah, things got so bad the wife left me and took the kid.” In the era following the social upheavals of the Great Depression it is easy to see why Capra would make a movie like this.
I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s in a community environment quite like Bedford Falls. It wasn’t perfect by any means but it wasn’t bad either. Above all else it was a stable existence. My father always had a decent paying job and we never worried about losing our house or not having enough food to eat. Also, because my parents were not always strained financially to their limits they were able to be involved, attentive and patient child-raisers and our family remained intact. But I can also remember my father, a product of the Great Depression, warning me about certain things, things that I now see happening all over again.
In 2008, at 54, I’m beginning to feel beleaguered a lot like George Bailey was and I don’t like living in a world that’s become a giant version of Potterville. Instead, I think I’d rather be back in a nice, friendly little place like Bedford Falls; a place where you can still live a fulfilling, happy, wonderful life.