By Peggy Nelson
It’s A Wonderful Life – 1946 – dir. Frank Capra
Recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946) has been variously described as a heartwarming celebration of family values, an historical appreciation of vanished small-town life, “sentimental hogwash,” an indictment of centralized banking, and a communist manifesto. It is all of these things. And yet, it is also something more.
The film tells the story of George Bailey of Bedford Falls, a stand-up guy played by incomparable everyman Jimmy Stewart, who has devoted his entire life to his family, his business, and doing the right thing, to the exclusion of his own ambitious (and perhaps unrealistic) dreams. How’s that working out? As the story opens he’s 40 and about to throw himself off the town bridge.
We also meet Clarence (Henry Travers), George’s guardian angel, up in Heaven, Inc. , where he’s been passed up for promotion for over 200 years, but is promised that closing the Bailey deal will bump him upstairs and finally earn him his “wings.” Clarence must do this by getting George to believe that his life has in fact been wonderful and not a crushing series of traps and broken dreams. The first three-quarters of the film is shown in flashback, as Clarence “studies” the key events in George’s life.
Vying with George for main character on Main Street is his father’s business, the Building and Loan. The Building and Loan is a credit union, where deposits from citizens are farmed out to their fellows, eventually repaid with reasonable interest and loaned out again. The money is held in a kind of virtual commons, with a central overseer to make sure no area gets overgrazed. But the Building and Loan not only represents finance, it symbolizes the heart of the community. And no one embodies this more than George.
The main conflict in the film is between the Building and Loan and Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the richest man in town and the head of the bank. At a board meeting where George has been filling in for his father before setting off for college, Potter moves to dissolve the Building and Loan. George gives one of the impassioned speeches with which the film is peppered:
“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?”
The board votes with George, but only if he will stay and run things. Reluctantly, George agrees, and sends brother Harry (Todd Karns) to school instead, continuing a pattern of forfeited opportunities, and gifts to others. George’s dream since childhood has been to get out of town, travel, become an engineer, and help build a wonderful new world. In one of the early scenes of the film, he proudly holds up a magazine to demonstrate his “membership in the National Geographic Society” to Mary, the girl next door (played as an adult by Donna Reed). Instead he manages to never leave Bedford Falls, as his intervention is constantly needed: to prevent a run on the bank during the Great Depression, to outwit numerous attempts by Potter to absorb the establishment, including a lucrative offer of employment, and to marry the girl next door. Meanwhile, the town grows up around him, enabled by his business efforts. People build homes and start small businesses, and the working class slowly but surely sees value for its labor. The town weathers WWII. George is 4F (as a result of an injury incurred while saving Harry from drowning in childhood), but Harry becomes a pilot and wins the Congressional Medal of Honor. As holiday season 1945 rolls around, George is planning a big homecoming for Harry in Bedford Falls. Which is when Uncle Billy (George’s sweet but simpleminded second-in-command at the Building and Loan, played by Thomas Mitchell) misplaces the envelope with $8,000 in deposits on Christmas eve. When the envelope is picked up and hidden by Potter, George faces bankruptcy, scandal and the collapse of everything he’s worked for. It’s the last straw, he’s given his life to be trapped in this town, and for what? The bridge beckons.
Clarence materializes on a business trip to earth (preempting George by jumping into the water first) and then shows George a Bedford Falls as if he had never lived, in a kind of reverse-Scrooge maneuver. Faced with all the terrible things that would have happened had he not been there to prevent them, and realizing his choices were actually his all along, George runs back home, in high spirits despite everything: “I’m going to jail, isn’t it wonderful?” Then a wonderful thing happens indeed. It’s not that everyone in town pitches in to make up the difference. It’s not the realization that there are some things much more valuable than money, such as love for your family and your fellow man. Something even more wonderful happens. Through pouring his heart into the Building and Loan, George has become the conduit through which the social network manifests itself; he has, in a very real way, become the town itself, a kind of townie Singularity. The gift that George receives, as a result of his empathy, is symbolized less by the piles of cash on the table, than by the audience’s usual reaction to the final scene. And this is Capra’s gift to *us, a few seconds of that oceanic feeling when everything is suddenly right.
When Harry finally arrives through the snowstorm and raises a toast, “to my big brother George, the richest man in town!” this is what he means. Because George truly has built a wonderful new world, with his wonderful life.