It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is an uplifting film only insofar as it ends on an upswing for its hero, summing up a treatise against self-destruction. Even though Frank Capra’s Christmas classic is moral allegory, class conflict suffuses it, resulting in a less-than-cheerful socioeconomic conclusion underlying its wonderful, Christmassy closing: that money can force American citizens to their knees at the expense of faith and self-confidence. Frank Capra lionizes the entrepreneurial main character, George Bailey (James Stewart), into the protector of the American Dream and gladiator of the “battle of Bedford Falls” so that he may knock him down several notches and watch him writhe. This narrative progression is not so much sadism on the part of the director as portraiture. Frank Capra uses George Bailey’s story as a case study for class relations in America, portraying the difficulty of attaining the American Dream when the Mr. Potters of the country are actively out to get the average American. The Dream haunts as a Christmas Ghost in this rightly canonized Capricorn picture.
Protector of Bedford Falls’ economic mobility is George Bailey’s inheritance. After his younger brother Harry leaves the house to celebrate his high school graduation, Pa Bailey (Samuel S. Hinds) neatly summarizes the American Dream to the ambitious George: “It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace.” This dialogue takes place at the film’s beginning, when George Bailey still imagines himself as a world-exploring twenty-something and not as a sedentary Average Joe townsman. Though he effectively paints his father as an abacus-rattling bore in this scene, he soon realizes that his own business acumen is needed in his hometown more than anywhere else. Pa’s lifelong business of “nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe” is more important on the whole than in George’s hasty snapshot.
After all, it is in his “shabby little office” at the Bailey Building and Loan that Pa secures the American Dream for those who seek it, or at least provides the tools that such aspirants need. In a town where the only upward mobility rests in “crawling to Potter,” standing up to Bedford Falls’ Scrooge-like magnate miser (Lionel Barrymore) is no mean feat, and indeed evokes a David and Goliath story. Avoiding foreclosure and attempting to drill “Times are bad” into Mr. Potter’s head is the saving grace of countless others in the town, even if it comes at the expense of Pa’s own career. When Bailey Jr. blurts out that his father is “the biggest man in town” in Mr. Potter’s presence, his naivete nonetheless pinpoints that his father, not Mr. Potter, has the biggest ideas in town; not monopoly expansion, but equal opportunity.
George Bailey succeeds his father’s role at the dawn of his new life. Just as his honeymoon car begins to pull out of the dreary little town, he decides to forego his alternative timelines and run to save the town from a bank run. With his fellow townsmen, wet and coated and haggard, huddled around him, he decides to bet his future on Bedford Falls, so that the little people still have a chance against Mr. Potter, who “can’t begin to spend all the money [he’s] got.” His wife, Mary (Donna Reed), offers up their entire honeymoon savings to her husband’s customers, and George begins doling it out, cementing his future as the man who saves the Dream from the gaping maw of Mr. Potter. His father’s portrait and caption, “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away” sticks in his head as he decides to give away all he has.
Mrs. Davis (Ellen Corby)’s loan request is the last straw in this scene before George Bailey equates his dreams of lassoing the moon with being his father’s son. During the bank run, after treating Building and Loan customers who ask for either their full balances back or a neat sum of $20 to hold them over through the crisis, George encounters a thin and cautious little lady. Instead of asking for the $20 precedent that the customers before her set, she squeaks out through her just-open mouth, “Could I have $17.50?” Mrs. Davis knows, of course, that George Bailey has given Tom his full balance of $242, and must have the heart to give her a mere $17.50. However, the shame of being in dire straits restrains the volume and confidence of her voice, and doubly functions to hide her meager finances from the rest of the crowd. Bailey kisses her on the cheek in a sudden surge of pathos because he understands that Mrs. Davis, if not many others, need his help against octopus-arms Mr. Potter.
Bailey’s gradual self-development makes his precipitous descent all the more tragic. Once Uncle Billy loses the Building and Loan’s $8000 and fails to recover it because of Mr. Potter’s machinations, Bailey, the warm and empathic hero of the film, transforms character, and plunges into violence, hatred, and vice. The “bankruptcy and scandal and prison” with which he diagnoses his situation terrify him and turn him into a Mr. Hyde to match his former Dr. Jekyll. This new Bailey destroys his children’s handmade models and throttles his father’s old friend. The once-ambitious George Bailey has descended into a hopeless inferno, where he must now crawl to Potter, as his father once did, and beg for economic mercy, only to receive the inevitable advice, that he is “worth more dead than alive.”
The reason for George Bailey’s suicidal brooding marks an important nuance in Capra’s retelling of his source material, Philip Van Doren’s “The Greatest Gift.” In “The Greatest Gift,” mundanity prompts George Pratt to kill himself, the sheer idea of being a “small-town bank clerk that even the army didn’t want.” Though Pratt has a “job at the bank…Mary and the kids,” his middle-class stagnation is the culprit. It is money, on the other hand, that drives our George Bailey to the bridge. His own money, his family’s money, and the money of all those Bedford Falls residents who depended on him as protector of the American Dream incite him to jump off that bridge that night and end his life. Though George Pratt seems a George Bailey who never realized his role as town keystone, George Bailey himself is a man who did everything right by his family and town and in that crucial scene, still is “worth more dead than alive.”