Several years ago I gave some thought to Frank Capra's classic film "It's a Wonderful Life" and published these thoughts as part of a longer essay in the journal "Perspectives on Political Science" in March 2002. As we settle into Christmas celebration, I thought I would "re-publish" that portion of the essay here. Caution: you may never watch the movie in quite the same way again...
And - a Merry Christmas to one and all!
It’s a Destructive Life
Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” portrays the decent life of a small-town American, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), an everyman who saves his community from an evil Scrooge – Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) – and who only comes to realize his accomplishments by witnessing what terrors might have occurred had he never lived. George Bailey represents all that is good and decent about America: a family man beloved by his community for his kindness and generosity.
Yet, if there is a dark side of America, the film quite ably captures that aspect as well - and contrary to popular belief, it is found not solely in Mr. Potter. One sees a dark side represented by George Bailey himself: the optimist, the adventurer, the builder, the man who deeply hates the town that gives him sustenance, who craves nothing else but to get out of Bedford Falls and remake the world. Given its long-standing reputation as a nostalgic look at small-town life in the pre-war period, it is almost shocking to suggest that the film is one of the most potent, if unconscious critiques ever made of the American dream that was so often hatched in this small-town setting. For George Bailey, in fact, destroys the town that saves him in the end.
Undoubtedly viewers have come to adore this film in part because it portrays what Americans intuitively sense what they have lost. Among the film’s first scenes is the portrayal of an idyllic Bedford Falls covered in freshly fallen snow, people strolling on sidewalks, a few cars meandering slowly along the streets, numerous small stores stretching down each side of the tree-lined streets. It is an America increasingly unknown and unseen: wounded first by Woolworth, then K-Mart, then Wal-Mart; mercilessly bled by the automobile; drained of life by subdivisions, interstates, and the suburbs. Americans admire this movie because it portrays Mr. Gower’s drug store as a place to meet neighbors over a soda or an ice cream, not merely a place to be treated as a faceless consumer buying an endless variety of pain-killers; similarly, like Cheers, Martini’s bar is somewhere everybody knows your name, a place to spend a few minutes with friends after work before one walks home.
George Bailey hates this town. Even as a child, he wants to escape its limiting clutches, ideally to visit the distant and exotic locales vividly pictured in National Geographic. As he grows, his ambitions change in a significant direction: he craves “to build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities.” The modern city of his dreams is imagined in direct contrast to the enclosure of Bedford Falls: it is to be open, fast, glittering, kaleidoscopic. He craves “to shake off the dust of this crummy little town” to build “airfields, skyscrapers one hundred stories tall, bridges a mile long....” George represents the vision of post-war America: the ambition to alter the landscape so to accommodate modern life, to uproot nature and replace it with monuments of human accomplishment, to re-engineer life for mobility and swiftness, one unencumbered by permanence, one no longer limited to a moderate and comprehensible human scale.
George’s great dreams are thwarted by innumerable circumstances of fate and accident: most of the film portrays a re-telling of various episodes of George’s life for the benefit of a guardian angel – Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) – who will shortly be sent down to earth to attempt to save George during his greatest test. Despite all of George’s many attempts to leave the town of Bedford Falls – first as a young man with plans to travel to Europe, later to college, and then still later, and more modestly, to New York City, various intervening events constantly prevent George from even once leaving Bedford Falls. In the course of relating his life, however, we discover that George has helped innumerable people in the community over the years; these countless seemingly small interventions it will be later discovered have amounted to the salvation of the entire town. Despite George’s persistent desire to escape the limitations of life in Bedford Falls, George becomes a stalwart citizen of the town he otherwise claims to despise.
However, if George’s grandiose designs, first to become an explorer, and later to build new modern cities, are thwarted due to bad fortune, he does not cease to be ambitious, and does not abandon the dream of transforming America, even if his field of design is narrowed. Rather, his ambitions are channeled into the only available avenue that life and his position now offer: he creates not airfields nor skyscrapers nor modern cities, but remakes Bedford Falls itself. His efforts are portrayed as nothing less than noble: he creates “Bailey Park,” a modern subdivision of single-family houses, thus allowing hundreds of citizens of Bedford Falls to escape the greedy and malignant clutches of Mr. Potter, who gouges these families in the inferior rental slums of “Pottersville.” George’s efforts are portrayed as altogether praiseworthy, and it is right to side with him against the brutal and heartless greed of Potter. However, such sympathies serve also to obscure the nature of Bailey’s activities, and their ultimate consequences. In particular, it is worth observing the nature of “Bailey Park,” not merely by contrast to “Pottersville” – in comparison to which it is clearly superior – but also in contrast to downtown Bedford Falls, where it may not compare as favorably by some estimations.
Bedford Falls has an intimate town center, and blocks of houses with front porches where people leisurely sit and greet passerbys who constantly amble on the nearby sidewalks. Bedford Falls is a town with a deep sense of place and history. When George’s car crashes into a tree, the owner berates him for the gash he has made: “My great-grandfather planted this tree,” he says. He is the fourth generation to live in his house, and the tree’s presence serves as a living link to his ancestors, a symbol of the stories told about the dead to the living and to the unborn.
It is especially worth noting the significant role of the front porch in the course of the film. Numerous scenes take place in the intermediate space between home and street. While apparently serving as a backdrop for the more obvious action on the screen, it is worth pausing to consider the contributions, even “role,” of the porch in the underlying assumptions about a way of life that Bedford Falls permits. In a discerning essay entitled “From Porch to Patio,” Richard H. Thomas notes that the front porch – built in part for functional purposes, especially in order to provide an outdoor space that could be used to cool off during the summer – also served a host of social functions as well: a place of “trivial greetings,” a spot from which an owner could invite a passerby to stop for conversation in an informal setting, a space where “courting” could take place within earshot of parents or the elderly could take in the sights and sounds of passing life around them, the porch “facilitated and symbolized a set of social relationships and the strong bond of community feeling which people during the nineteenth century supposed was the way God intended life to be lived.”
By contrast, Bailey Park has no trees, no sidewalks, and no porches. It is a modern subdivision: the trees have been plowed under to make room for wide streets and large yards with garages. Compared to Bedford Falls - which is always filled with strolling people - the development is empty, devoid of human presence. The residents of this modern development are presumably hidden behind the doors of their modern houses, or, if outside, relaxing in back on their patios. The absence of front porches suggests an alternative conception of life that will govern Bailey Park - life is to be led in private, not in the intermediate public spaces in front that link the street to the home. One doubts that anyone will live in these houses for four generations, much less one. The absence of informal human interaction in Bailey Park stands in gross contrast to the vibrancy of Bedford Falls.
The patio – successor to the front porch – embodies as many implicit assumptions about how life is to be led as the porch. Thomas notes the move from urban centers into suburban enclaves in the years following World War II led to the creation of “bedroom communities” in which one did not know one’s neighbors and where frequent turn-over made such stable community relationships unlikely, where privacy and safety were dual concerns leading to the creation of the “patio” space behind the house, most often at the expense of a porch in the front. As Thomas contrasts the two, "the patio is an extension of the house, but far less public than the porch. It was easy to greet a stranger from the porch but exceedingly difficult to do so from the backyard patio…. The old cliché says, ‘A man’s home is his castle. If this be true, the nineteenth-century porch was a drawbridge across which many passed in their daily lives. The modern patio is in many ways a closed courtyard that suggests that the king and his family are tired of the world and seek only the companionship for their immediate family or peers."
Bailey Park is not simply a community that will grow to have a similar form of life and communal interaction as Bedford Falls; instead, George Bailey’s grand social experiment in progressive living represents a fundamental break from the way of life in Bedford Falls, from a stable and interactive community to a more nuclear and private collection of households who will find in Bailey Park shelter but little else in common.
We also learn something far more sinister about Bailey Park toward the end of the film. George contemplates suicide after his Uncle has misplaced $8,000 and George comes under a cloud of suspicion. At this point the recounting of George’s life for the benefit of Clarence the angel ends, and Clarence enters the action to dissuade George from taking his life. Inspired by George’s lament that it would have been better had he never lived, Clarence grants his wish – he shows what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without the existence of George Bailey. George’s many small and large acts of kindness are now seen in their cumulative effect. Particular lives are thoroughly ruined or lost in the absence of George’s efforts. Further, the entire town – now called “Pottersville” – is transformed into a seedy, corrupt city in the absence of George’s heroic resistance to Potter’s greediness.
Attempting to comprehend what has happened, and refusing to believe Clarence’s explanations, George attempts to retrace his steps. He recalls that this awful transformation first occurred when he was at Martini’s bar, and decides to seek out Martini at home. Martini, in the first reality, is one of the beneficiaries of George’s assistance when he is able to purchase a home in Bailey Park; however, in the alternate reality without George, of course the subdivision is never built. Still refusing to believe what has transpired, George makes his way through the forest where Bailey Park would have been, but instead ends in front of the town’s old cemetery outside town. Facing the old gravestones, Clarence asks, “Are you sure Martini’s house is here?” George is dumbfounded: “Yes, it should be.” George confirms a horrific suspicion: Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. Not only does George raze the trees, but he commits an act of unspeakable sacrilege. He obliterates a sacred symbol of Bedford Fall’s connection with the past, the grave markers of the town’s ancestors. George Bailey’s vision of a modern America eliminates his links with his forebears, covers up the evidence of death, supplies people instead with private retreats of secluded isolation, and all at the expense of an intimate community, in life and in death.
George prays to Clarence to be returned to his previous life, to suffer the consequences of the seeming embezzlement, but to embrace “the wonderful life” he has lived, and has in turn created for others as well. His prayer granted, George returns home to find that a warrant for his arrest awaits him, as well as reporters poised to publicize his shame. However, his wife Mary has contacted those innumerable people whose lives George has touched to tell them of George’s plight. In one of the most moving scenes on film, George’s neighbors, friends and family come flocking to his house, each contributing what little they can to make up the deficit until a pile of money builds in front of George. Trust runs deep in such a stable community of long-standing relationships: as Uncle Billy exclaims amid the rush of contributors, “they didn’t ask any questions, George. They just heard you were in trouble, and they came from every direction.” George is saved from prison and obloquy, and Clarence earns the wings he has been awaiting.
Despite the charm of the ending, a nagging question lingers, especially when we consider that many of the neighbors who come to George’s rescue are ones who now live in Bailey Park. If the tight-knit community of Bedford Falls makes it possible for George to have built up long-standing trust and commitment with his neighbors over the years, such that they unquestioningly give him money despite the suspicion of embezzlement, will those people who have only known life in Bailey Park be likely to do the same for a neighbor who has hit upon hard times? What of the children of those families in Bailey Park, or George’s children as they move away from the small-town life of Bedford Falls? A deep irony pervades the film at the moment of it joyous conclusion: as the developer of an antiseptic suburban subdivision, George Bailey is saved through the kinds of relationships nourished in his town that will be undermined and even precluded in the anomic community he builds as an adult.