A Wonderful Life?

By Michael F. Duggan

 For the past few years, I have posted a version of this essay around this time of year.  Having just watched the movie last night, here it is again.  

I have always loved the 1947 Frank Capra seasonal classic It’s a Wonderful Life, but have long suspected that it is a sadder story than most people realize (in a similar but more profound sense as Goodbye Mr. Chips).  One gets the impression from the early part of the movie that George Bailey could have done anything, but was held back at every opportunity.  Last year, after watching it, I tried to get my ideas about the film organized and wrote the following essay.

In spite of its heart-warming ending, the 1947 Christmas mainstay by Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life, is in some ways a highly ambiguous film and likely a sad story. George Bailey, the film’s protagonist played by Jimmy Stewart (in spite of his real-life Republican leanings), is the kind of person who gave the United States it’s most imaginative set of political programs from 1933 to 1945 that shepherded the country through the Depression and won WWII and consequently its greatest period of prosperity from 1945 until the early 1970s (for a real life sample of this kind or person, see The Making of the New Deal: The Insiders Speak). Bailey wants to do “something big and something important”—to “build things” to “plan modern cities, build skyscrapers 100 stories high… bridges a mile long… airfields…” George Bailey is the big thinker—a “big picture guy”—and his father, Peter Bailey the staunch, sensible, and fundamentally decent localist hero. Both are the kind of people we need now.

In a moment of frank honesty bordering on insensitivity, George tells his father that he does not want to work in the Building and Loan, that he “couldn’t face being cooped up in a shabby little office… counting nickels and dimes.”  His father recognizes the restlessness, the boundless talent and quality, the bridled energy, big-thinking, and high-minded ambition of his son.  Although wounded, the senior Mr. Bailey agrees with George, saying “You get yourself and education and get out of here,” and dies of a stroke the same night—his strategically-placed photo remains a moral omnipresence for the rest of the movie (along with presidential photos to link events to specific years).

One local crises or turn of events after another stymies all of George’s plans to go abroad and change the world just as they seem to be on the cusp of fruition. Rather than world-changer, he ends up as a local fixer for the good—a better, and more energetic version of a local hero, a status that confirms his “wonderful life” at the film’s exuberantly sentimental ending where a 1945 yuletide flash mob descends on the Bailey house thus saving the situation by returning decades worth of good faith, deeds, and subsequent material wealth and prosperity.  But what is it that sets George apart from the rest of the town that comes to depend upon him over the years?

At the age of 12 he saves his brother Harry from drowning (and by historical extension, a U.S. troopship a quarter of a century later), leaving him deaf in one ear.  Shortly thereafter, his keen perception prevents Mr. Gower, the pharmacist (distracted by the news of the death of his college student son during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919), from accidentally poisoning another patient.  As an adult, George’s theorizing about making plastics from soybeans by converting a local defunct factory adds to the town’s prosperity and makes a less visionary friend (Sam “hee-haw” Wainwright) a fortune, but not one for himself.

Other than saving the Building and Loan from liquidation, George’s primary victory is marrying his beautiful and wholesome sweetheart—”Marty’s kid sister”—Mary (Donna Reed) and raising a family.  With a cool head and insight and the help of his wife, they single-handedly stop a run on the Building and Loan in its tracks with their own readily-available honeymoon funds.  The goodwill is reciprocated by most of the Savings and Loan’s investors (one notably played by Ellen “Can I have $17.50” Corby, later Grandma Walton).

From there George goes on to help an immigrant family buy their own house and in fact builds an entire subdivision for the town’s earnest and respectable working class, all the while standing up to the local bully: the cartoonishly sinister plutocratic omnipresence and Manachiest counterweight to everything good and decent in town, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).  Potter is the lingering, unregulated nineteenth-century predatory plutocracy that, in modified form, cooked the economy during 1920s, resulting in the Great Depression.  Even Potter comes to recognize George’s quality and unsuccessfully attempts to buy him off.

During the war, George’s bad ear keeps him out of the fighting (unlike the real Jimmy Stewart who flew numerous combat missions in a B-24), and makes himself useful with such patriotic extracurriculars as serving as an air raid warden, and organizing paper, rubber, and scrap drives.  And yet he seems to have adapted to his fate of being involuntarily tethered to the small financial institution he inherited from his father, and therefore the role of the town’s protector. He seems more-or-less happily resigned to his fate as a thoroughbred pulling a milk wagon.

 Were George Bailey just another guy in Bedford Falls or most towns in the United States, this would indeed be a wonderful life and indeed for most of us it would be.  Even with all of his disappointments, his life is a satisfactory reply to the unanswerable Buddhist question, “how good would you have it?”  On the face of events, George seems to be a great success at the end of the movie.  In case this is not abundantly apparent from the boisterous but benevolent 1940s Christmastime riot of unabashed exuberance—a reverse bank run or bottom-up version of the New Deal or a spontaneous neighborhood Marshall Plan—at the movie’s end. His brother—now a Medal of Honor recipient—proudly proclaims “To George Bailey, the richest man in town.” This is confirmed in the homey wisdom inscribed in a copy of Tom Sawyer by George’s guardian angel (and silly fictional device and concession to comic relief in a story about attempted suicide) Clarence that “no man is a failure who has friends”.

Of course Clarence is introduced into an already minimally realistic story to provide George with the exquisite but equally silly luxury—“a great gift”—of seeing what would have become of the town and its people without him (although to a lover of hot jazz, the business district of Pottersville—an alternate reality to the occasionally overly precious, Norman Rockwell-esque Bedford Falls—looks fairly attractive, with its hot jazz lounges, jitterbugging swing clubs, a billiards parlor, a (God forbid) burlesque hall, and what seems to be an unkind shot at Fats Waller).

In this Hugh Everett-like alternate narrative device and dark parallel universe, he sees that his wife Mary is an unhappy mouse-like spinster working in a (God forbid) library; that Harry drowned as a child and thus was not alive in1944 to save a fully loaded troop transport.  Likewise, everybody else in the town is an embittered, anti-social, outright bad or tragic version of themselves relative to the personally frustrating yet generally wonderful Rated-G version of George’s wonderful life.

The problem is that George is not ordinary; he is no mere careerist, conventionalist, or money-chasing credentialist—he is a quick-thinking, maverick problem-solver with a heart of gold. He is exactly the kind of person we need now, but whom the establishment of our own time despises.  Although harder to identify on sight, in our own time, the charming and attractive Mr. Potter’s of the world have won.

In literary terms, George is not a typical beaten-down loser-protagonist of the modernist canon; he is not a Bartleby the Scribner, a J. Alfred Prufrock, Leopold Bloom, or Willie Lohman, but then neither is his stolid father (George is perhaps more akin to Thomas Hardy’s talented but frustrated Jude Fawley or a better version of James Hilton’s Mr. Chips—characters who might have amounted to more had they not been limited or constrained by external circumstances).

Rather, George is more in keeping with the great tragic-heroic protagonists of the Greeks and Shakespeare (i.e. a person who could have pushed the limits of the humanly possibility), if only he could have gotten up to bat.  He might have done genuinely great things, had his plans gotten off the ground, had the unforeseen chaos of life and social circumstances not intervened.  Just after breaking his father’s heart by revealing his ambitions, George correctly assesses and confides that the old man is a “great guy.”  True enough.  But the conspicuous fact is that the older Bailey is much more on the scale of a local hero, a “pillar of the community”—a necessary type for any town to extinguish the day-to-day brush fires and is therefore perhaps more fully actualized and resigned to his role (even though it kills him mere hours later—or was it George’s announcement?).  But George has bigger ambitions and presumably abilities to match.

In a perfect world, someone like Mr. Bailey, Sr. would be better (and in fact is) cast in the role to which his son is relegated, even though his ongoing David versus Goliath battles with Potter likely contributed to his early death.  George might have found an even more wonderful life if he had gone to college and law school and then gone to Washington to work for Tommy Corcoran and Ben Cohen, or as a project manager of a large New Deal program, or managing war production against the Nazis and Imperial Japanese.  Instead he organizes scrap and rubber drives and admonishes people to turn off their lights during air raid drills.  In a better world, a lesser man could have handled all the relative evils of Bedford Falls.

Of course the alternative is that George is delusional throughout the film, that he is not as great as we are led to believe, that—like most of us—he is not as good as his biggest dreams. But there is nothing in the film to suggest that this is the case.

The moral for our own time is that we needs both kinds of Mr. Baileys—father and the son—and it is clear that in spite of numerous local victories, George could have done far more in the broader world (his less-interesting younger brother, Harry, seems to have unintentionally hijacked George’s plans and makes a good go of them: he goes off to college, lands a plumb research position in Buffalo as part-and-parcel of marrying a rich and beautiful wife, and then disproportionately helps win a world war, and returns, amazingly, as the same happy-go-lucky person complete with our nation’s highest military honor after lunching with Harry and Bess at the Executive Mansion). George is the Rooseveltian top-down planner and social democrat while Mr. Bailey, Sr., is the organic, Jane Jacobs localist.

Even if we accept Capra’s questionable premise that George’s life is the most wonderful of possible alternatives (or at least pretty darned good), the ending is not entirely satisfactory for people used to Hollywood Endings: George’s likable, but absent-minded, Uncle Billy inadvertently misplaces $8,000 dollars (perhaps ten or twenty-fold that amount in 2018 dollars) into Mr. Potter’s hands (a crime witnessed and abetted by Mr. Potter’s silent, wheelchair-pushing flunky, who, even without a uttering single line in the entire movie, is arguably the most despicable person in it—an equally silent counterpart to the photograph of the late Mr. Bailey, Sr.), and his honest mistake is never revealed nor presumably is the money ever recovered.

Mr. Potter’s crime does not come to light, and George is very nearly framed by the incident and driven to despair. Instead of a watery self-inflicted death in the Bedford River, he is happily bailed out (Bailey is bailed out after bailing out the town so many times), first by a homely angel and then by the now prosperous town of the immediate postwar.

The fact that his rich boyhood chum, the affable frat-boyish Sam Wainwright, is willing to extend $25,000 of his company’s petty cash puts the crisis into wider focus and perspective and makes us realize that George was never was really in that much trouble, at least financially (although the SEC might have found such a large transfer to a close friend with a mysterious $8000 deficit to be suspicious).  Wainwright’s telegram is a comforting wink from Capra himself.  Had he not been so distracted by an accumulation of trying circumstances—the daily slings and arrows of being a big fish in Bedford Falls—this kindness of Sam’s and the whole town is something that George might have intuited himself thus preventing his breakdown in the first place.  The bank examiner (district attorney?), in light of the crowd’s vouchsafing George’s reputation, tears up the summons, grabs a cup of kindness and heartily joins in singing “Hark, the Herald Angel Sings.”

Still, the loss of $8,000 in Bedford Falls was a crisis that almost drove George to suicide.  If he had been a manager of wartime industrial production, a similar loss would have been a rounding error that nobody but an accountant would have noticed.

At the movie’s end, George is safe and obviously touched by the outpouring of his community and appreciates just how god things really are (and you just know that any scene that begins with Donna Reed rushing in and clearing an entire tabletop of Christmas wrapping paraphernalia to make room for a torrential charitable cash flow is going to be ridiculously heart-warming). But at the movie’s end George remains as local and provincial as before, he has just been instructed to be happy with the way things have turned out (why not, it’s almost 1946 in America and everything turned out just fine).  His wonderful life has produced a wonderful effort to meet a (still unsolved) crisis.  Just imagine what he could have done with 1940s Federal funding and millions of similarly well-intended people to manage—like those who engineered the New Deal, the WWII mobilization, and the Marshall Plan. Would his name have ranked along with the likes of Harry Hopkins, Rex Tugwell, Adolph Bearle, Raymond Moley, Frances Perkins, John Kenneth Galbraith, Thomas Corcoran, Benjamin Cohen, Averell Harriman, George Marshall, George Kennan, and Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt themselves?

It is impossible not to surrender to the warmth and decency of this film’s ending, and I realize that this essay has been minute and dissecting in its analysis.  What is the lesson of all of this?  I think the moral to those of us in 2018 is that below the surface of this wonderful movie is a cautionary tale, and that if we are to face the emerging crises of our own time, we will at the very least require a whole Brains Trust of George Baileys in the right places and legions of local people like his father.  There is a danger in shutting out this kind of person. We must also come to recognize the Mr. Potters of big business and their minions who have dominated for the past half-century.  I suspect that they look nothing like Lionel Barrymore.