December 2008 Archives

It's a Miserable Life

It's a Wonderful Life is an eternal fixture on the Christmas TV schedule. But this year, something interesting happened. Since the collapse of the housing bubble, some people have called for a re-evaluation of the story. The conflict between the hated banker Mr. Potter and the kindly George Bailey and his Building and Loan cry out for a comparison to modern times. One columnist called the protagonist, George Bailey, a purveyor of sub-prime housing loans and asserted Mr. Potter was a model of fiscal restraint. This reversal of the traditional moral of the story is interesting, but is not the whole story.
I became interested in this subject after reading an article in the New York Times entitled Wonderful? Sorry George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life! The author, Wendell Jamieson, gets to some of the core issues in the movie, he says, "after repeated viewings, that the film turns upside down and inside out.." and I agree. The constant repetition of this film, year after year on TV, has made the saccharine sentiments almost opaque, leaving us with little ability to rationally interpret the events in the film. Mr. Jamieson makes a strong case for his reevaluation, he asserts that Bedford Falls is a boring, miserable town with a stultifying middle-class moralism, thrown into high relief by its transformation into the alternate universe of Pottersville and its raucous, exciting night life. But alas, Mr. Jamieson stops just short of asking why this is so.
Many of Frank Capra's movies are almost manifestos of an American form of Socialism, for example, Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The basic theme is always the same, a simple, powerless man confronts the rich and powerful man, and defeats him with the backing of the masses. But these complex political themes do not translate well into a personal story like It's a Wonderful Life, that story is perhaps unintentionally too detailed, giving insights that Capra probably did not intend.
In this year's viewing, I noticed one detail I thought was particularly revealing. During the bank run on the Bailey Building and Loan, George Bailey begs people to withdraw only what they need for a week. Several people in a row withdraw $20, then a woman asks for only $17.50. Bailey kisses her and praises her restraint. Later, when they close, they have a balance of $2, the staff dances around the room as they place the $2 in the safe, they have survived the bank panic. We are obviously meant to believe that the woman's restraint, her borrowing $2.50 less than others, has singlehandedly saved the business. But I thought it was more revealing how Bailey fawns over the two dollar bills, calling them "mama dollar and papa dollar" and worships them as if they were the most precious thing in the world. And to George Bailey, they are. Those two dollars keeps the Building and Loan afloat, and George Bailey enslaved in the job he hates.
But these are mere peripheral events around the central conflict between Mr. Potter and George Bailey. I would even describe their relationship as co-dependent. George despises his life, his whole existence is a reaction to Potter. He makes horrible choices for his own life, because he envies Potter's power. Only one thing gives Potter the power that Bailey desires: money. Bailey worships money.
The final conflict over the missing $8000 is the centerpiece of the film, but it deserves close scrutiny under this new microscope. Bailey even begs Potter to cover the loss, Potter shows how powerful he is, by calling for his arrest and disgrace in the press. This triggers Bailey's meltdown, he finally recognizes his abject lack of power, the power only money can bring.
Pottersville, however, is alternate universe where Bailey has no money, and money is no object. Pottersville represents everything Bailey desires: freedom. Everyone has everything they desire: liquor, sex, and loads of excitement. Bailey even goes into a bar, gets a drink, then realizes he has no money to pay for it. No problem, he gets tossed out the front door into the snow, he even seems to enjoy his little humiliation. But Pottersville is a figment of Bailey's imagination, a symptom of Bailey's psychotic episode. Obviously freedom is beyond any mere mortal's grasp (even with the aid of an angel).
The film's denouement, where the townspeople bring small sums of money to cover the missing $8000, deserves a total reevaluation. Little by little, all the money piles up into a mountain of crumpled currency, right in front of Bailey. These are contributions from poor people who can't really afford to part with it. Then a telegram arrives from a wealthy industrialist (and college boyfriend of Mrs. Bailey) offering a $12,000 line of credit. The contributions of the masses have instantly been rendered useless, Bailey could give it all back and rely only on the line of credit. I think the individual donors should be outraged. But instead, they hail Bailey as "the richest man in town."
And that is the explicit, yet unnoticed message of the film. Now George Bailey is Mr. Potter. Or at least, for a moment, Bailey's misery is relieved by the thought that he has the power that only unlimited riches can bring.
Ultimately, I think this is a despicable message. The film conflates the personal tragedies of a miserable life with the bondage of debt. It equates success with riches, and both Bailey and Potter get their riches off the poor who cannot afford to part with it. Worst of all, Capra's ham-handed sentimental ending defeats his whole purpose of depicting a socialist utopian victory; the masses are once again put in their place by the wealthy industrialist and his unlimited credit. It's a miserable film.