Why It Hurts to Watch Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life

Culture Watch

Mr. Nobile is Professor of History, Chaffey College.

In a matter of weeks, Americans will engage in the Christmas ritual of visiting Bedford Falls, U.S.A., home to George and Mary Bailey, Uncle Billy, Bert and Ernie, Violet Bicks, and mean Henry Potter. It's the time of year for everyone's favorite holiday rerun, Frank Capra's 1946 classic, It's a Wonderful Life. Americans have been watching this film for more than half a century, but have long ago abandoned its message. In his time, Frank Capra was a persistent advocate for core cultural values. Today, conservatives and new Democrats alike bemoan the absence of core values, though I doubt they want to adopt those of Bedford Falls.

If the political and cultural pacesetters of our time are any indication, the wonderful life of Capra's film bears little resemblance to our aspirations. The current fascination with the rich, the powerful, and the famous is not found in Bedford Falls. To Capra, the rich and powerful had none of the essential qualities to preserve freedom in America, nor did they display any of the core cultural values he championed. Henry Potter, the films consummate big money capitalist, is half a man physically, existing entirely from the waist up. More importantly, what remains of his humanity is the part triggered by cold monetary self-interest. Potter has neither family nor friends. His only social relationships are those attached by what a wise philosopher once called the" cash nexus." Unlike his nemesis, George Bailey, Potter is intolerant of America's working class and its ethnic minorities. Potter refers to the former as"suckers" and"riff raff," and the later,"garlic eaters." In short, Capra depicts big time capitalists as bigoted predators, itching to direct America toward a predatory existence under their domain.

It’s A Wonderful Life warns that a predatory capitalism could prevail unless regular Americans reconcile the tension between self-interest and the communal spirit--each with a grip on our national consciousness. George Bailey not only embodies this conflict, he provides the object lesson for its resolution. He fights the temptations of self-interest every time he tries but fails to"shake the dust off [that] crummy little town." In the famous parlor scene where George and Mary share a phone call from"Hee Haw," Sam Wainwright, George insists he"doesn't want any ground floors," he"doesn't want to marry anybody!" Just before succumbing to his repressed love for Mary, he says,"I want to do what I want to do!" Of course, George never does what he wants, for, as a more contemporary George (Costanza) has said,"A George divided against himself cannot stand." Time and again, George B. sets aside"independent George," and for good reason. To do otherwise would condemn Bedford Falls to Potter. Even George and Mary's planned honeymoon, financed by their hard earned rainy day money, is too risky to the fabric of the community.

George Bailey is Capra's consummate peoples' hero using his money and his business only as a way of helping family, friends, and community. Herein lie the essence of Capra's Americanism and his model for generating a wonderful life--a people's capitalism. Such a capitalism exists when one's commitment to giving takes priority over self; when the well being of the self is rooted in the well being of the community, and when the profit motive is employed to meet societal needs, rather than stock dividends. Like many Depression era Americans, Capra had little faith left in the promises of laissez-faire (i.e., the pursuit of self-interest as parent to the common good). What is good for Potter is emphatically not good for Bedford Falls.

The humane capitalism of Capra's film was not inevitable. A possible alternative is glimpsed, should the"true American" succumb to the temptations of unbridled individualism. It is"Pottersville," a place marred by divorce, broken families, pornography, shootings and police chases; an existence that"makes men want to get drunk fast," according to Nick the bartender. Pottersville turns the innocent flirtations of Violet Bicks, easily accommodated in the nurturing environment of Bedford Falls, into prostitution and self-destruction. It is an all against all, spiritually unrewarding society where the entrails of misery and alienation are easy to find--kind of like L.A.

Judging from the film's ending, Capra did not think Pottersville was likely. There were far too many George and Mary Baileys dedicated to the well being of others. Moreover, Capra saw the values of a people's capitalism enduring since they were consistent with the ethics of the heavens. After all, George's guardian angel, Clarence, had to help others before he could earn his wings. No, once committed to the core values of a people's capitalism, the U.S. could beat back all threats, foreign and domestic.

For all its collectivist spirit, It’s A Wonderful Life is not without its flaws. Capra was naïve to think a people's capitalism could endure solely on citizens' commitment to the Golden Rule. Without a people's government, a people's capitalism seems inconceivable. Capra also looked too optimistically at suburbia as a location where his core values could prosper, and off the mark in assuming"Bailey Park" would protect Americans from the Henry Potter's of the world. Suburbia has proven to be quite accessible to the corrosive influences of corporate interests. The post World War II suburbanization of the working class eroded much of what remained of community values. With its porchless houses, lack of significant social space, suburbia fostered not community, but runaway consumerism. Such an existence made it easy for Americans to turn inward and ignore all but self. Instead of community identity flowing smoothly from the interaction of people and personalities, as in Bedford Falls, suburbia took on the identity imposed from without, enveloping all under the now familiar signs of the Wal Marts, Starbucks, Best Buys, and Costco's. So complete is the corporate takeover of the culture, teachers of our time can either identify their students either by name or corporate logos.

Finally, Capra's ideal America is sexist and racist to a degree. From all indications, he had a hard time envisioning women outside the role of housewife. After all, Mary, a college graduate, only finds fulfillment in"turning a house into a home" and being"on the nest." Likewise, Capra showed no indication he could perceive blacks in roles outside the servant class. Annie, the Baileys' maid, makes a number of references to her desire for a husband and family, but we can't like her chances. She is the only black in Bedford Falls, and, for all the warmth and comfort found in the Bailey home, I'm not sure even they are ready to accept inter-racial marriage.

Capra's critique of big money capitalists is all but lost in today's mainstream culture. Instead of people's heroes, our culture displays a steady menu of the"greed is good" ethos of ABC's John Stossel, the Social Darwinism of"Survivor"and the mean spirited, though now somewhat blemished conservatism, of Rush Limbaugh and Bill"one armed bandit" Bennett.

America seems to have lost its stomach for a sustained critique of the rampant pursuit of personal wealth over civic responsibility. This is as much so politically as culturally. Our current president gives huge tax breaks to the wealthiest 1 percent under the cynical banner of"fairness" to all taxpayers. Indeed, the most visible"George" of our time has come a long way from Bedford Falls.

Democrats currently lined up to challenge Bush seem equally reluctant to campaign against America Inc. The few prominent George and Mary Baileys of today (Ralph Nader, Arianna Huffington, Dennis Kucinich et. al.) are relegated to the margins, while the attitudes of an early twentieth century Republican-- who once called the rich and well born"malefactors of great wealth"-- are as passe as Frank Capra. So too the words of Eugene V. Debs, who insisted that"money constitutes no proper basis for civilization." All of the above makes the enduring popularity of It’s A Wonderful Life something of a curiosity and at the same time a ray of hope. In any case, I know what I want from Santa Claus this Christmas. I want Capra's civic mindedness, and critique of the rich and wellborn worked back into the fabric of the culture. Perhaps then we can revitalize our struggle for all to have a wonderful life.

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Stephanie Rose Boyer - 6/8/2004

I am a freshman at OSU, and I used this article as a source for my final paper on class polarity in Wonderful Life. I am a republican, and pleased to laearn that Capra was also. This article aided me in compiling my research paper, to be turned in to a TA who neveer saw the movie (I didn't have to worry about the seemingly contradictory theme of "pro-socialism and Capra's conservativeness:) Anyway, I love this movie. BUSH IN 04!

rg - 12/21/2003

Are you saying his book is false?
If so, please cite examples.
By the way, communison/socialism IS a terrible institution. It always translates into a cheap police state run by murders and thugs. See : USSR, China, Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam, etc.
Capitalism isn't perfect (far from it as a matter of fact) ... but it's a helluva better starting place than socialism...

John Moser - 12/19/2003

"Capra was naïve to think a people's capitalism could endure solely on citizens' commitment to the Golden Rule. Without a people's government, a people's capitalism seems inconceivable."

This seems pretty clear to me.

Nick - 12/19/2003

My interpretation of the article had little to do with the author advocating stricter controls over the market. Patterville is not an economic system, it is a frame of mind. It can exist whether you live in a highly regulated economy or a totally free market. The point is how welath is percieved and what people will do to get it, not a lamentration against capitalism.

John Moser - 12/16/2003

Sorry, I just saw this article today, and I feel compelled to comment. If what Professor Nobile is saying is true, we might expect to find our Pottersvilles in those parts of the world where there markets are freest, and our idyllic Bedford Fallses in those places where businesses are most highly taxed and most heavily regulated. But when I think of Pottersville, large cities come to mind, and it is in these cities where the most liberal politicians are elected (think of Detroit, San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago, New York, etc.) and the most anti-business policies are in place. On the other hand, there are plenty of Bedford Fallses still around--but you'll find them in the so-called Blue states which went for Bush in 2000, which have a solid record of electing Republicans, and which are known for having low taxes and (relatively) few regulations on business.

Keo James - 12/15/2003

Please, don't recommend Charlie Sykes. That guy is nothing but a wind-up conservative whining automaton. If you're ever in Southeast Wisconsin, avoid his radio program.

Grant Fritchey - 12/15/2003

The Wizard of Oz, the book, was written as political allegory. So, it's hardly a shock (or much of a stretch) to see the film that way.

There was a time when Republicans were the "Trust Busters." The guys who used government to level the playing field so that true capitalism could raise the level of everyone. I think that's why Capra was a Republican and seen as "anti-business" by reference to his attacks on Potter & Potterville. However, it wasn't "anti-business" nearly as much as it was clearly, anti-trust. He wasn't advocating a cradle-to-grave socialist heaven, he was advocating a level playing ground where each man (women's place being in the home, not agreeing, just reading the film) could rise to his own level through his own efforts.

I have to agree with the article. I don't think either political party (or most members of each) would identify with the morals of Bedford Falls.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 12/15/2003

By the way, drunkeness and laziness are not confined to the unwashed. As I recall, the current occupant of the Oval Office--a creature of no small privilege--was in fact a drunk and, by most reports, is still quite lazy.

Cram - 12/13/2003

There is no quote I can cite, no program I can offer, or particular think tank I can refer to. All I can say is that the general atmosphere of this country has become one of pure and total capitalism over everything. There are TV shows that get people to eat insects and do other foolish things, people being asked to marry strangers, and all for money, our generations gladitorial games.

Of course we still have welfare programs, and of course there are lazy poor people and generous right people (Bill Gates and Ted Turner come to mind, among many, many others).

My post refferred to my perception of how certain classes of people are viewed by mainstream culture, not any one magazine, politician, or TV show. Get rich quike is all I see, on TV, in college students, and other places.

This is not a condemnation of every person, place, and think in the year 2003. It is a personal observation of how the concept of wealth has changed between IAWL, and today. I would recommend the book "Nickel and Dimed" as an excellent book that illustartes the fallacy of "work hard and it will pay off" mentaility that, while might once have been true, is hard to really find. Of course, if you don't work hard, you are sure to fail, but working hard is no longer any guarentee of a decent standard of living, let alone success.

Anyone who comes to a completely different conclusion is free to think they way they do. I, like all people, am a product of my background and environment, and that is going to effect my judgements. You may agree with them or you may not.

Steve Brody - 12/12/2003

I guess we all see what we want to in any movie, including IAWL. I always thought it was a beautiful tribute to the importance of each individual and how our lives are inter-related. Sometimes in ways that are not clear to us.

Some see it as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unbridled capitalism. I always saw Potter’s wealth as an ironic twist to a life rich in money and poor in spirit and sense of community. Sort of like Ebenezer Scrooge without the redemptive Ghost of Christmas.

What does seem to be a myth is that the Republicans are the party of “big bucks” capitalism and the Democrats the party of the “little guy”. Both Parties respond to campaign contributions and there are more rich Democrats in Congress than rich Republicans.

People are fond of bringing up Enron and Global Crossing without acknowledging that both companies gave money to both Parties and in the case of Global Crossing much more to the Democrats. People also gloss over the fact that both companies engaged in their illegalities under Clinton and were exposed and are being prosecuted under Bush.

Vince Nobile - 12/12/2003

The fact that Capra was a lifelong Republican and a diehard anti-communist, seems irrelevant to the message of not just this film but his others as well. Take a look at "Meet John Doe" and you will find the same message. D.B. Norton is a manipulative capitalist whose ambitions, if not defeated by "the people" would lead ultimately to the demise of American freedom. Ann's father, "old Doc. Brown" is the heart and soul of media crafted "John Doe", that film's Christ figure. The speeches John Doe gives throughout the film contain identical values to those found in Bedford Falls. All this may be a coincidence, or it may be that Capra was politically at odds with his own instincts about freedom and capitalism. Whichever, one would be hardpressed to deny that Capra's films portrayed the rich and wellborn as threats to a wonderful life, and these films certainly do not advocate a worship of wealth as the cornerstone of American civilization. His warnings about the blind pursuit of wealth, intended or otherwise, remain valuable nonetheless. So, for those who choose to read I.A.W.L as just a story about friendship, be my guest. I am reminded of one thing by your comment: I wouldn't have nearly as much trouble with today's Republicans if they shared a little more of Capras skepticism about the corrosive impact of big buck capitalism.

Cram - 12/12/2003

Mr. Williams,
I will not disagree with your post that Capra meant none of the symbolic references that other choose to see, but I don't think that dampens the moral of the article on the film, even if the film is seen as a symbol that it was never meant to be.

Some analysts look at the Wizard of Oz as a piece talking about the politics of the day. The tin man was the new industrial worker, who was nothing more than a machine without a heart. The wizzard, the great robber barron who behnd the smoke and pomp was nothing more than an old man, and of course the yellow brick road, a calling to accept the gold standard instead of silver (the largest and most controvercial campaign issue in the election of 1896).

Of course, it can never be known if the author of the Wizard of Oz really meant for all this deep analysis, although I find it unlikely that he did.

I am willing to accept that Capra may not have meant to say what the author of this article interprets. I don't think it lessons the message however.

Earl Williams - 12/11/2003

This discussion of the political significance of ''It's a Wonderful Life'' is all very interesting.But the fact is that Frank Capra was a lifelong Republican and a militant anti-communist.He saw absolutely no political messages in IWL He said it was simply the story of a man whose life had been lived for everyone except Himself.The only moral that Capra saw in the film was that if a man dies with only one friend His life has been a success.It is really sad to se something so simple made so

Steve Brody - 12/11/2003

Come on Cram. Are you really saying that the United States has become Pottersville? When did this happen?

“..the poor are accused of laziness, drunkenness, or worse,..”

Cram, some ARE drunks and lazy. Some are just unlucky. Who makes the blanket accusation that “the poor” are lazy and drunk?

“..the rich are praised as great civic Americans…”

Some are, some aren’t. If you work in academia, find out if your University has an endowment and if it has, who funds it. Bet you it’s some rich guys.

“..when probed about the inherent inequities in Bush’s tax cuts, the only response the conservatives offer is, “hey, they pay more in taxes, they should get more in cuts.”

Cram, if you check, you’ll find that the progressiveness of the US income tax system is still intact. The rich, except for Arrianna Huffington, still pay WAY more than anyone else.

“..the poor get smiles and false promises of better education or healthcare.”

I’d still rather be poor in this country, than middle class in any other.

Steve Brody - 12/11/2003

But even old “moss back” George Bailey understood the value of capitalism. When he was talking to Sam “Hee Haw” Wainwright in that famous parlor scene, what did he tell him? “Remember the old tool and machinery works? Tell your father he could get it for a song. Half the town was thrown out of work when it closed down.”

Arianna Huffington a Mary Bailey? How does a fabulously wealthy women, who pays no income taxes, who reviles middle class SUV drivers, while hypocritically driving her electric car to Butler Aviation where she catches a private jet, qualify as a “Mary Bailey”?

David Salmanson - 12/10/2003

I think you are underestimating what role the urban housing shortage played in the violence. "The Origins of the Urban Crisis" is a great place to start, although you can find pieces of the thesis scattered about in places like Robert Caro's The Power Broker. Essentially, the argument goes like this. Urban renewal and highway construction destroyed housing and the capital of the inhabitants pushing (mostly minority) poor people into extremely crowded and substandard conditions. One of the ironies of urban renewal is that it rarely builds enough housing to replace that which it demolishes leading to even worse conditions. Just as rats react violently to overcrowding, so to do people. I am not talking just about density of population. I'm talking about 2 families sharing one bedroom apartments. In my own work on mining communities, I found that housing shortages correlated with higher incidents of brawling and bar fighting (social workers called it "Traileritis") so it is not just an urban phenomenon. Redlining plays a role in this too.

All that said. I hate social studies. It isn't anything, and can't be anything because it wants to be all things. I am very happy that I do not work in the public school system where I would have to teach social studies. I am very happy being a history teacher and I think my students learn more that way anyway.

Joe Dryden - 12/10/2003

That's brilliant. So Capra's Potterville was created not by the rapacious greed of Potter himself, but by the antisocial behavior of the poor fools compelled to live there. How brilliant! It wasn't deindustrialization that created the urban crisis, it was poor and working-class people themselves, or the idiotic liberals who sought to bandage a bleeding artery. They all ought to be ashamed of themselves. I completely agree: they all should have just shut up and gotten back to work. After all, a good worker is a docile worker, work is freedom, and war is peace. Can't thank you enough for the insightful response.

rg - 12/9/2003

...I still don't understand how...

A good starting point would be: "A Nation of Victems. The Decay of American Character" by Charles Sykes.

Also, everyone commenting on this article should read "The Hollywood Party" ... sorry I forget the author. The communist party did have incredible control in Hollywood back then. And NO it was not about McCarthy.

Marianne - 12/9/2003

Mr Cramer, you wrote:

"Isn't it amazing that murder rates more than doubled between the mid-1950s and 1980--with that rise starting while the Great Society was busily being implemented by the left? There are a lot of other factors that explain this rise, of course, but let's not pretend that the decline and fall of civilized behavior was the result of unbridled capitalism."

Ignoring the fact that the explosion in violent crime rates in the U.S. in the late 20th century corresponded with the demographic swell of the baby boomers hitting the streets, I still don't understand how Great Society programs like Medicare, civil rights enforcements, pre-school programs like Head Start and higher education programs like the federal student loan programs, not to mention the groundbreaking legislation governing pollution clean up and controls, resulted in what you're calling "the decline and fall of civilized behavior."

Clayton E. Cramer - 12/9/2003

A good point:It is "Pottersville," a place marred by divorce, broken families, pornography, shootings and police chases; an existence that "makes men want to get drunk fast," according to Nick the bartender.But who gave us this despicable place, written on a national scale? Was it Republicans and corporate greed that scrapped almost all laws against pornography? No, it was the liberals who decided that freedom of the press required an absurd definition of obscenity in Memoirs v. Massachusetts (1966).

Who encouraged relaxed divorce laws, leading to increases in divorce and broken homes? Conservatives. No, this was another liberal goal, built on the best of intentions--but destructive nonetheless.

Isn't it amazing that murder rates more than doubled between the mid-1950s and 1980--with that rise starting while the Great Society was busily being implemented by the left? There are a lot of other factors that explain this rise, of course, but let's not pretend that the decline and fall of civilized behavior was the result of unbridled capitalism.

Cram - 12/8/2003

I can only assume you took the name off the Simpsons character you seem to be emulating. Wow, where to being.

1) "America is great."

No argument here.

2) "Middle class guys spend their weekends driving the RVs to football games. I go to the strip clubs whenever I can to look at all those well fed boobs."

How nice for you.

3) "Having money is good."

I doubt you can find anyone who would disagree with that.

4) "What we call poor in this country are people who are likely to be suffering from obesity."

Over 43 MILLION Americans do not have any healthcare insurance, and approximately 6% of Americans are unemployed. Barring and economic miracle, Bush will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to have created NO net jobs in his entire term. (Let us pause for a moment to consider that).

Meanwhile, we are witnessing one of the largest federal deficits in history, while fighting a worldwide campaign against terror.

Here's the breakdown of Bush tax cut, as reported by Dan Rather on CBS NEWS in January:
74% goes to Amercians making one million dollars per year, or more;
25% goes to Americans making $100,000 dollars per year, or more;
1% goes to Americans making $25-99,999 dollars per year; AND FINALLY,
0% goes to Americans making anything under $25,000 per year.

5) "I love these morons who persist in applying the 1930s socialist rhetoric to our contemporary super-rich society."

Hate to burst the bubble, but some people in this country are actually (wait for it now...) poor. Brace yourself, but many do not have any medical insurance (that means that if they are sick, they can't go see a doctor unless it is a medical emergency).

The fact that none of this bothers you in the slightest is not an insult against you, simply the reality of how the system works and also the pooint of the article.

Don't worry though, keep watching your football and going to your strip club, and enjoy all the excitment Pottersville has to offer.

Cram - 12/8/2003

Before this page is besieged with conservatives yelling "communist" at this well intentioned article, I thought I would take the opportunity to say how interesting the authors analysis of the Capra film was. I don't know enough about the man to know whether this was his intention with the film, but I know enough about the film to know that Pottersville has become more than an alternate version of what could be, but a realistic portrayal of what is.

Just as Potter in the movie, the poor are accused of laziness, drunkenness, or worse, and the rich are praised as great civic Americans, never mind if they were born in into their wealth. The concept of “every man for himself” has become such a maxim of American culture that when probed about the inherent inequities in Bush’s tax cuts, the only response the conservatives offer is, “hey, they pay more in taxes, they should get more in cuts.” A fair and honest statement and one that ignores any obligation to help the community and nation. What matters is that the rich get their money back while the poor get smiles and false promises of better education or healthcare. This is reality, and it is a shame.