Reflections on “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Directed by Frank Capra

Based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern

Screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling

and Frank Capra

Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

The entire premise of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is rooted in Depression and pre-war issues and attitudes. Times were hard for working people after the Wall Street crash of 1929, the effects of which continued to be felt for the following 25 years, and it only served to accentuate and exacerbate social and financial divisions of the period.

With this context in mind we arrive at Bedford Falls, a small American town, to follow the story of George Bailey, a small-time American businessman, at various points in his life, leading to the moment of crisis where he feels he can’t go on …. and receives help from Clarence Oddbody, angel second class who has yet to gain his wings.

After a couple of flashback sequences, we pick up George’s story when he’s about to head off for college which he sees as his gateway to future success. He expresses youthful ambition and aspirations, wanting to build imposing structures, bridges and towns, making a concrete and visible mark on life and gaining varied and valuable experience of life and the world.

However, circumstances, combined with a sense of duty and obligation, mean that George’s dreams of experience and success will be constantly postponed ….

This contrasts somewhat with the most successful businessman in town, the ageing banker Henry Potter.

For Henry Potter, the people and businesses to whom he lends money or rents accommodation are merely a means of developing his wealth, power and influence. He is portrayed as opportunistic and devoted to self-aggrandisement, failing (or refusing) to recognise that building a successful business can be viewed as the means of developing, supporting and reinforcing society, and not simply as an end in itself.

In contrast to Mr Potter’s hard-hearted approach to business, we have Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association, founded by George’s father Peter and his uncle Billy. These businessmen do not seek to get rich but are content to make a modest profit while helping their neighbours and customers escape the clutches of potentially heartless and greedy landlords by offering them loans which allow them to become independent home-owners.

The variance in approach and attitude between the two is summed up in the scene where Potter proposes the liquidation of Bailey Bros. He mocks and belittles taxi driver Ernie Bishop and refers to the working class as a potentially discontented and lazy rabble if they were to gain access to the means of home-ownership. This stirs George to respond that the “rabble” are largely responsible for the everyday workings and smooth running of society and that it’s not too much to enable them to enjoy decent living conditions and help them leave Potter’s slums. He also suggests that home-ownership makes for better citizens and better customers.

This scene, perhaps more than any other in the film, may be said to articulate and encapsulate director Frank Capra’s views of the social and financial situation of the time. There had been vaguely similar challenges in some of his previous films but none, I think, quite as clear-cut in its observations and criticism as this one. It is perhaps unsurprising that the FBI listed this film as suspected communist propaganda from 1946 to 1956.

The suggestion appears to be that there are two types of capitalism – one based on pure financial commercialism wherein anything goes in an attempt to maximise profit and minimise accountability, and the other in which social awareness and responsibility are taken in to account. Bedford Falls and its population are society in microcosm with fellow inhabitants lending one another a hand and each making a contribution to their community. Frank Capra is clearly on the side of the “little men” who make a relatively small but cumulatively essential contribution to the workings of society and their neighbours’ lives.

Although George is held up by his friends as a paragon of altruism, humanity and selflessness, it should be borne in mind that he had ambitions to travel, gain experience of the world and make his mark through construction and design. He has known inner conflict as he was aware that his personal desires and ambitions were sacrificed to instinctive values and principles, leading to a vague sense of failure or lack of fulfilment. Yet, even when he faces ruin (when uncle Billy misplaces $8000, found and retained by Potter) and is tempted by Potter’s offer of personal wealth and “success”, he cannot bring himself to abandon the principles on which his company was founded and by which he has lived his life. He chooses principle over personal advancement and security and as such acts as Frank Capra’s beacon of light in what he saw as the darkness of commercial opportunism.

However, all too aware of the devastating effects of bankruptcy and overcome by a sense of failure and the prospect of scandal and ruin, George considers suicide in a desperate bid to cover his apparent losses and leave his family financially secure by way of a life insurance policy. It is at this point that he meets Clarence, angel second class, who will change George’s perspective on his life as he affords George the privilege of seeing how his community would have turned out without his input.

George (and we, the viewers) come to realise the extent of each person’s impact and influence on others’ lives. George learns of his input (simply by being himself and intermixing with others) on the lives of his wife, mother, family, neighbours, colleagues, customers, friends, strangers (lives are saved indirectly due to the impact of his actions) and even the very tenor of his home town. Clearly, Frank Capra is pointing out that we all influence and impact on the lives of those around us, indeed ultimately we depend on one another for the continuance and survival of our society, and as such we should, perhaps, be mindful of the way we conduct ourselves and treat one another.

George’s gloomy perspective is altered by Clarence’s intervention and while he sees and appreciates his own positive influence on those around him, there remains the matter of the missing $8000 ….

Here, Capra returns to a motif common to several of his films – the value of friendship and respect. George’s many friends (including all those who hold him in high regard or feel he has done them a service in the past) pitch in and bail him out of trouble. Capra clearly believes in people and their innate goodness and willingness to help and support one another, if they have not been corrupted by greed, power and influence. Just as George acted out of compassion, humanity and community spirit to positively influence others’ lives, so his friends are willing to act similarly with each making a relatively small contribution to make a big impact on his life.

The gaining of respect, good will and affection may be viewed as a sign of success in life, as opposed to the accumulation of money, power and influence at the expense of genuine wealth of friendship, family and esteem. George felt this applied to his father when he told Potter that Peter Bailey was a richer man than he would ever be. Perhaps Clarence helps George realise this tenet applies equally to him.

Through the device of Clarence and his heavenly overseers (although this is treated lightly and playfully), Capra appears to express an affirmation of the existence of a system of omniscient and paternal supervision and care. He avoids reference to organised religion, indeed at one point as George turns to God in desperation he states that he is not a praying man, but this underpinning structure lends the film a moral assurance and substance while supporting a conviction that mankind is essentially good and responds to love and respect.

While eminently worthy and admirable, this “message” and the means of delivering it were perhaps somewhat at odds with the jaded and existential realism of the immediate post-war period and as a result the film did not do very well at the box-office on its initial release. However, with the passage of time and the softening of existential attitudes, audiences became more receptive to the fantasy element and viewed the themes of perspective and personal and social value and input as timeless and universal, eventually according the film cult status. Of course, circumstances, themes and attitudes in the film may have resonated with more recent audiences given the reach and consequences of the financial crisis of 2008 (and ever since!).

Some Capra films appear breezy and light in their first half before becoming more hard-hitting and thoughtful in their second half. In the case of this film, another transition (with the fantasy element) is brought in to play, and it works!

The film has been accused of being simplistically optimistic and even idealistic at the end, yet there are some tough and thought-provoking scenes and themes before we reach that point. It may not have fallen in with the vogue for post-war realism and moral challenge, but there is surely a place for a carefully developed and thoughtful piece which offers hope and a way forward in times of despair.

The script engages, entertains and advances characterisation and storyline in every scene while Capra’s stock players lend a comfortable and familial atmosphere in their almost joyous interplay. James Stewart’s performance makes you feel the gamut of emotional response as he goes from innocence and hope to disappointment and frustration, to love and elation. It is certainly one of his best performances, maybe even his greatest.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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