I first saw Director Frank Capra‘s It‘s a Wonderful Life (1946) years ago in New York City, in one of the city’s many “revival“ theaters that featured “oldies,” or movies made before 1965. It was in the Thalia Theater, a small, run-down but comfortable, smoker-friendly Art Deco theater on the Upper West Side. Right around the corner, on Broadway, was the palatial New Yorker Theater, which also featured “oldies,” in which I also educated myself in the art of movie-making and story-telling.
I remember not liking It’s a Wonderful Life (IAWL) that first time, and my animus for it grew every time I saw it after that, chiefly because the life of George Bailey, the anti-hero, was not my life. George, played by Jimmy Stewart, had grand ambitions, but surrendered them to the needs of others. I had grand ambitions, as well, but never surrendered them. For all the American character of the film, I regarded it as distinctly anti-American.
For years I toyed with the idea of writing an answer (or a literary antidote) to IAWL, just as I would someday actually write a literary answer to Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel, The Maltese Falcon (as well as to the Humphrey Bogart film of it). But I had other literary projects to tackle, and an answer to Capra’s film remained far, far in the rear of my priorities, even though his postwar film was becoming something of a cultural “icon” and was being hailed by critics an American “classic.”
In a manner of speaking, Wendell Jamieson beat me to the idea in The New York Times, in his December 18, 2008 article, “Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life.” In it, although he still confesses a fondness for the film, Jamieson projects an alternative destiny for Bedford Falls, George’s home town.
For those who are not familiar with the story, it is about the life of George Bailey, who wishes to become an architect or engineer and build skyscrapers and bridges and planned cities and the like. As a young man, every time he is about to go off to college or see the world beyond Bedford Falls, something happens to keep him home. After his father’s death, he feels obligated to take over the Bailey Building and Loan Association, and so winds up helping the “little people” buy their own homes (echoes of the recent “bailout“ crisis will remain unspoken here). He never leaves town. He is blind-sided by his feckless brother Harry, he marries a calculating, ambition-killing woman (presaging Lillian Rearden from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged) played by Donna Reed, has children, lives in a drafty mansion, and becomes a pillar of Bedford Falls society not because he has accomplished anything, but rather because he is so selfless. He has become a walking vehicle of Kantian maxims.
Then, on Christmas Eve and after VE Day, his chronically sodden Uncle Billy, who also works for the building and loan, misplaces an $8,000 deposit, which is handily snatched up by the “evil” town banker, Henry F. Potter, George’s financial nemesis who wants to “own“ the town. George cannot cover the loss, of course, and never learns who stole the money. But Potter, who is on the building and loan’s board of directors, initiates criminal charges against him. Facing scandal and prison, George snaps, chews out Uncle Billy, his wife, his kids, and others, and contemplates suicide. Then an angel is sent to teach George a lesson. The angel, played as a kind of half-wit, shows George what would have happened to Bedford Falls had he never been born, granting him that wish in answer to a tossed off remark by George to that effect.
Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, a kind of upstate New York Las Vegas before Vegas was not much more than a literal desert watering hole, alive with gambling and dance halls and raucous taverns. His friends are impoverished by Potter, one of them, a cop, tries to shoot him, his mother doesn’t know him, the town flirt becomes a prostitute, and his wife a spinster working in the town library. George, of course, learns the lesson and is brought back to the present, grateful and full of Christmas cheer. He knows now that he “made a difference” in others’ lives by abandoning his ambition. He reunites with his family, and the whole town comes to his rescue by chipping in to cover the $8,000 loss. He is hailed by his war-hero brother as the “richest man in town” — “rich” in all his friends.
What astounded me about Jamieson’s article is that he found Pottersville a far more interesting and exciting place to live than sleepy, dull Bedford Falls. “…Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.” Thriving, that is, as a competitor of Saratoga Springs, a resort and horse-racing town not very far away from fictive Bedford Falls. “What a grim thought,” Jamieson asks in his article. “Had George Bailey never been born, the people in his town might very well be better off today.”
Jamieson also points out that, after consulting with a county district attorney, George still would have been liable for the $8,000 larceny, regardless of how he made restitution to the building and loan. “I mean, if someone robs a bank, and then gives the money back, that person still robbed the bank, right?”
Right. And Teddy Kennedy should have served time for involuntary manslaughter, and both of the Clintons should have donned prison jump suits for their many and various episodes of malfeasance.
Bosley Crowther, in his review of IAWL for The New York Times on December 23, 1946, was not so forgiving or imaginative. He liked certain aspects of the film, and credited the principal cast for its performance, but “Lionel Barrymore’s banker [Potter] is almost a caricature, and Henry Travers’ ‘heavenly messenger’ [Clarence the angel] is a little too sticky for our taste.” Crowther expresses his main objection:
“Indeed, the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer’s point of view, is the sentimentality of it — its illusory concept of life. Mr. Capra’s nice people are charming, his small town is quite beguiling and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile. But somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.”
To Crowther, IAWL wasn’t “realistic” or “naturalistic” enough. Apparently, the theme and moral of the story were too pat, too syrupy, too simplistic, too predictable, and not convincingly delivered. But, then, any story in which an angel appears and determines the course of events cannot be at all realistic. One could also say that about any “happy ending” predicated on the triumph of altruism and selflessness, except in such instances as the fate of Catherine Halsey, Ellsworth Toohey‘s niece in The Fountainhead, and then it is a tragedy. And, like Jamieson, he does not question the altruist moral of the story, but accepts it as an unquestionable measure of the good. While Crowther found the film “emotionally gratifying,” it didn’t “fill the hungry paunch.” Jamieson, on the other hand, concludes his review by recounting his first viewing of the film in 1981:
“Fifteen years old and imagining myself an angry young man, I got all choked up. And I still do.”
The altruistic moral of the story is as uncontroversial to Crowther and Jamieson as having cream with one’s coffee: Others have a moral claim on one’s life; to do the “right thing” is to “give back” to others, to the community, to society, to the nation, now called volunteerism or community service. I regard IAWL as anti-American because it touts the virtue of selflessness, when being free to pursue one’s ambitions without any obligation to serve one’s fellow men was the implied moral cornerstone of this country’s founding.
Altruism is a tenacious, poisonous morality, even for those who do leave their own Bedford Falls to pursue their ambition. Look at billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who are now devoting their lives and fortunes to “giving back” in the best George Bailey tradition. It is penance for being successful, and an unconscionable crime. Crowther was wrong in his estimate of the film. A nagging compulsion to serve the public remains the “average reality” in too many Americans today, just as it was in his time.
Its journey as a non-blockbuster in 1946 to its current status as a cultural icon could serve as a measure of the continuing loss of the country‘s sense of life and the fading of its vision as a nation of selfish, non-sacrificing, benevolent individuals. In 1990, IAWL was deemed by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry.” It was nominated for five Oscars but won none, being buried by The Best Years of Our Lives, released also in 1946, and which featured no angels but touted selflessness and sacrifice in a more “realistic” manner. It won seven Oscars. The American Film Institute rated IAWL third only to The Lord of the Rings in the fantasy genre, but definitely ensconced in the top 100 American films.
Ayn Rand, who testified before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1947 about the Communist influence in Hollywood, wished to testify against The Best Years of Our Lives, but was only given a chance to speak about Song of Russia. What she would have said to the committee appears in Journals of Ayn Rand.* Song of Russia was an obvious wartime propaganda vehicle, but The Best Years of Our Lives was a film about the lives of servicemen returning from the war. Rand considered its collectivist “message” far more insidious and effective than that of Song of Russia.
“Nobody has ever been endangered by being offered poison in a bottle bearing a label with a skull-and-crossbones. Poison is usually offered in a glass of the best wine — or, modern version, in a quart of the milk of human kindness.”
That criticism could just as well be applied to IAWL, except that instead of the milk of human kindness, its poison was offered in a tall glass of holiday eggnog. Interestingly, Rand wasn’t the only person to see the communist influence in Hollywood. The FBI regarded IAWL as communist propaganda. A memo to Director J. Edgar Hoover in May 1947 begins:
“With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.
“In addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”
Frank Capra once said that IAWL “was the story I had been looking for all my life. A good man, ambitious. But so busy helping others, life seems to pass him by. Despondent. He wishes he had never been born. He gets his wish. Through the eyes of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he not been born. Wow! What an idea. The kind of idea that when I get old and sick and scared and ready to die — they’ll say, ‘He made The Greatest Gift.’”
“In a 1946 interview, Capra described the film’s theme as ‘the individual’s belief in himself,’ and that he made it to ‘combat a modern trend toward atheism.’”**
It was a belief in himself as a capable servant of society that Capra is speaking of, not anything so offensive as individualism and self-confidence. The union of and alliance between left-wing collectivism and religion, a phenomenon we are witnessing today (such as in the presidential campaign, articulated by both major candidates) began longer ago than anyone could have imagined.
Jimmy Stewart in a 1977 article summed up his own estimate of the film:
“…[T]here is nothing phenomenal about the movie itself. It’s simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life.”
My own “answer” to It’s a Wonderful Life would have seen George Bailey escaping Bedford Falls and leaving all his hapless, parasitical beneficiaries of his selflessness to their just fates. But, some years ago I realized that I could write such a story only if I made the fate of the residents of Bedford Falls the chief story line, not George Bailey’s life and achievements beyond that “one-horse town.” It was just not interesting enough a story in which to invest any creative energy.
There is, however, one specific episode in my rendition of the film I would have definitely included: George elopes with the town flirt and sex siren, Violet Bick (played by Gloria Grahame), spurning Mary Hatch. I leave the rest of the story to your imagination.
Happy New Year.
*Journals of Ayn Rand, New York: Dutton, 1997. Edited by David Harriman. Pp. 367-386 for a full accounting of her HUAC testimony and her article on The Best Years of Our Lives for the Motion Picture Alliance.
**It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book, by Stephen Cox. Nashville: Cumberland House, 2003.