Like a great many of you, I spent much of my Christmas Eve this year enjoying Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Nearly seventy years after its release, the heartwarming story of selfless Bedford Falls banker George Bailey’s lifelong suffering and last-minute redemption continues to resonate deeply with millions of viewers each and every December. Paying homage to time-honored American values of courage, civic duty and devotion to community, “It’s a Wonderful Life” illuminates the brightness of a single thoughtfully-lived life against the encroaching darkness of selfishness and despair, weaving a narrative whose moral chiaroscuro is mirrored in the film’s timeless black-and-white cinematography.
Part of the film’s enduring appeal undoubtedly lies in the simplicity of its blueprint for an ethically healthy community. As the nation crawls back up the unforgiving face of the fiscal cliff, reels from the horrific aftermath of yet another mass shooting, and, as Bedford Falls did, begins to welcome home our soldiers from a long and brutal war, we could stand to learn a few lessons from the trials and tribulations of George Bailey.
At first glance, Capra’s portrayal of small-town Bedford Falls appears to endorse an essentially liberal vision of the good society. The film’s greedy antagonist, the wealthy and self-aggrandizing Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), has no greater goal in life than the constant acquisition of more money and larger properties. The pernicious Potter, a true vulture capitalist, buys up and dismembers cherished pieces of small-town Bedford Falls, turning happy family homes into soul-sucking slums and reducing hard-working blue-collar men to impoverished serfs. The only thing standing in his way is the heroic George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), owner of the Building and Loan, who selflessly rejects the bold, adventurous life of which he has always dreamed in order to lend his fellow citizens the money they need to get a hand up in life.
But “It’s a Wonderful Life” is also imbued with fundamentally conservative virtues of self-reliance, individual agency and collective morality. The government is nowhere to be seen; Bedford Falls’ poor and destitute find solace in the generosity of a private individual. The film’s famous closing scenes contain no Robin Hood-esque IRS agent swooping in to tax Mr. Potter’s estate and redistribute the proceeds; Bedford Falls instead finds joy in community, shared duty and family. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked that “the central conservative truth is that culture, not politics, determines the success of a society.” Culture (shared values of charity), not politics (the hand of the state), is the town’s indisputable guiding force.
All in all, “It’s a Wonderful Life” reflects the political and cultural spectrum of a different time – a time in which the prevailing wisdom, shared assumptions, and basic fabric of society looked fundamentally different. Without going nearly so far as to suggest that the ideal America is the America of 1946 romanticized in film, I do think very much that filmgoers in 2012 could stand to gain by incorporating a few of Capra’s lessons into our own lives today.
Taking care of our own, eschewing the empty pursuit of money in favor of a cause, whether that be family, athletics, art, scientific progress, or activism; taking the time to know and support the members of your community – these are not particularly liberal or conservative ideals. “Material well-being,” observed Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, “represents nothing but the foundation, and that… foundation, though indispensable, is worthless unless upon it is raised the superstructure of a higher life.” That higher life is the subject of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and it should be our object now.
Ultimately, the film suggests that our problems flow from nonpartisan sources, and that fruitful solutions may lie in a philosophy of life that transcends political lines and that may not be achievable via political means.
Small-town 1940s America may be gone, and with it the possibility for small-town 1940s solutions to small-town 1940s problems.
But some stories never change.
Did you watch It’s a Wonderful Life this year? Let Miles know what you thought at [email protected].