It’s a Miserable Life

It’s a Wonderful Life is an eternal fixture on the Christmas TV schedule. But this year, something interesting happened. Since the collapse of the housing bubble, some people have called for a re-evaluation of the story. The conflict between the hated banker Mr. Potter and the kindly George Bailey and his Building and Loan cry out for a comparison to modern times. One columnist called the protagonist, George Bailey, a purveyor of sub-prime housing loans and asserted Mr. Potter was a model of fiscal restraint. This reversal of the traditional moral of the story is interesting, but is not the whole story.

I became interested in this subject after reading an article in the New York Times entitled Wonderful? Sorry George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life! The author, Wendell Jamieson, gets to some of the core issues in the movie, he says, “after repeated viewings, that the film turns upside down and inside out..” and I agree. The constant repetition of this film, year after year on TV, has made the saccharine sentiments almost opaque, leaving us with little ability to rationally interpret the events in the film. Mr. Jamieson makes a strong case for his reevaluation, he asserts that Bedford Falls is a boring, miserable town with a stultifying middle-class moralism, thrown into high relief by its transformation into the alternate universe of Pottersville and its raucous, exciting night life. But alas, Mr. Jamieson stops just short of asking why this is so.

Many of Frank Capra’s movies are almost manifestos of an American form of Socialism, for example, Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The basic theme is always the same, a simple, powerless man confronts the rich and powerful man, and defeats him with the backing of the masses. But these complex political themes do not translate well into a personal story like It’s a Wonderful Life, that story is perhaps unintentionally too detailed, giving insights that Capra probably did not intend.

In this year’s viewing, I noticed one detail I thought was particularly revealing. During the bank run on the Bailey Building and Loan, George Bailey begs people to withdraw only what they need for a week. Several people in a row withdraw $20, then a woman asks for only $17.50. Bailey kisses her and praises her restraint. Later, when they close, they have a balance of $2, the staff dances around the room as they place the $2 in the safe, they have survived the bank panic. We are obviously meant to believe that the woman’s restraint, her borrowing $2.50 less than others, has singlehandedly saved the business. But I thought it was more revealing how Bailey fawns over the two dollar bills, calling them “mama dollar and papa dollar” and worships them as if they were the most precious thing in the world. And to George Bailey, they are. Those two dollars keeps the Building and Loan afloat, and George Bailey enslaved in the job he hates.

But these are mere peripheral events around the central conflict between Mr. Potter and George Bailey. I would even describe their relationship as co-dependent. George despises his life, his whole existence is a reaction to Potter. He makes horrible choices for his own life, because he envies Potter’s power. Only one thing gives Potter the power that Bailey desires: money. Bailey worships money.

The final conflict over the missing $8000 is the centerpiece of the film, but it deserves close scrutiny under this new microscope. Bailey even begs Potter to cover the loss, Potter shows how powerful he is, by calling for his arrest and disgrace in the press. This triggers Bailey’s meltdown, he finally recognizes his abject lack of power, the power only money can bring.

Pottersville, however, is alternate universe where Bailey has no money, and money is no object. Pottersville represents everything Bailey desires: freedom. Everyone has everything they desire: liquor, sex, and loads of excitement. Bailey even goes into a bar, gets a drink, then realizes he has no money to pay for it. No problem, he gets tossed out the front door into the snow, he even seems to enjoy his little humiliation. But Pottersville is a figment of Bailey’s imagination, a symptom of Bailey’s psychotic episode. Obviously freedom is beyond any mere mortal’s grasp (even with the aid of an angel).

The film’s denouement, where the townspeople bring small sums of money to cover the missing $8000, deserves a total reevaluation. Little by little, all the money piles up into a mountain of crumpled currency, right in front of Bailey. These are contributions from poor people who can’t really afford to part with it. Then a telegram arrives from a wealthy industrialist (and college boyfriend of Mrs. Bailey) offering a $12,000 line of credit. The contributions of the masses have instantly been rendered useless, Bailey could give it all back and rely only on the line of credit. I think the individual donors should be outraged. But instead, they hail Bailey as “the richest man in town.”

And that is the explicit, yet unnoticed message of the film. Now George Bailey is Mr. Potter. Or at least, for a moment, Bailey’s misery is relieved by the thought that he has the power that only unlimited riches can bring.

Ultimately, I think this is a despicable message. The film conflates the personal tragedies of a miserable life with the bondage of debt. It equates success with riches, and both Bailey and Potter get their riches off the poor who cannot afford to part with it. Worst of all, Capra’s ham-handed sentimental ending defeats his whole purpose of depicting a socialist utopian victory; the masses are once again put in their place by the wealthy industrialist and his unlimited credit. It’s a miserable film.

3 thoughts on “It’s a Miserable Life”

  1. Has anyone ever noticed before, or seen pointed out, the fact that Potter breaches his fiduciary duty?
    A banker who observes a customer mislaying a deposit may or may not have an obligation to speak up. He probably does, since — at least in this case — his only real alternative is simply to treat the 8 grand as found money, the bank’s free and clear, and how likely is that to be the correct answer? Such a course of action at least arguably would violate the bank’s implicit contract with its customer, and thus would constitute a species of theft.
    But never mind that. Let’s assume there is no such obligation in the general case. Even so, the fact remains that Potter sat on the Bailey Building and Loan’s Board of Directors! As such, he unmistakably had a duty to speak up that an ordinary observer would not have had. And by remaining silent when he knew damn well what had happened to the money, he clearly violated that duty.
    For what it’s worth.
    [The NYTimes essay makes this exact point, it quotes a District Attorney that claims this would be a felony punishable by up to 7 years in prison. –Charles.]

  2. Interesting. Glad I’m not the only one to notice this!
    (I did not follow the link to the NYT article before, Charles, because I was referred to your article and site by a mutual friend, and therefore was only interested — initially — in your comments.)
    I think it’s an important point, because it shows that Potter is not the free-market, capitalist archetype that Capra tries to make him out to be. Which of course fits in with some of your points about Capra’s naive utopian socialism (or socialist utopianism).
    [Thanks for your comments. I recall seeing the film for the first time and wondering why George Bailey was threatened with prosecution rather than his drunken uncle who lost the $8000. I presume Capra meant for the audience to think that George was selflessly taking the blame for his uncle. Now that you mention it, I did intend (but forgot) to write about how the incident was George’s fault, he was actively enabling his uncle’s drunkenness and incompetence. George was right to call him a “silly, stupid old fool.” –Charles]

  3. Sorry to be dominating your Comments section, but it turns out we’re not quite as “on the same page” as I had thought.
    When I finally had a chance to read my print-out of the NYT article, yesterday evening, I was very surprised to find that it discusses the possible liability not of Potter (Lionel Barrymore), as I had written to suggest, but of George (Jimmy Stewart). And the article speaks of George being guilty of “theft” and of “tak[ing] the money” — things that I do not recall George actually doing.
    (As an officer of the Building & Loan, George might well be financially liable for the loss of the 8 thousand dollars, but that is not the same as having personally taken the money.)
    Somewhat confusingly, the Times article also speaks (three paragraphs earlier) of Potter having “snatched” the mislaid deposit. While I do not recall seeing him do that — as I indicated in my first post, all I remember is that he looked on and said nothing when he saw Uncle Billy mislay the deposit — it sounds much closer to the truth. And at the very least, Potter and George cannot both have taken the same $8,000! So the discussion in the Times article is somewhat confusing and self-contradictory.
    On the other hand, it also is the case that I have not seen the film in quite a while, so my recollection of its details is fuzzy. And for that I apologize.
    Another point I was and remain confused on: Was Uncle Billy supposed to deposit the 8 grand in Potter’s bank or their own?
    I had thought that the $8K conisted of cash taken from the vault of the Bailey Bulding and Loan (“BB&L”) to be deposited into an account that, for whatever reason, the BB&L maintained with Potter’s bank. (Otherwise, what was Uncle Billy doing at Potter’s bank when he lost the cash? That is where he lost the cash, isn’t it?) In any event, the second paragraph of my original post presupposes this, and makes no sense otherwise. (If BB&L did not maintain an account with Potter’s bank, then BB&L and Uncle Billy were not Potter’s, or his bank’s, customer.)
    However, when I tried to double-check the details of the plot with Wikipedia just now, it indicated that the $8K were being taken to BB&L to be deposited into its vault. Which certainly makes more sense in light of all the concern over the bank examiner’s visit. (I guess maybe Uncle Billy just stopped into Potter’s bank on his way to his own bank — BB&L — for purely social rather than business reasons.) So it appears that I may (again?) have misremembered.
    So I remain confused, for which I again apologize.
    [Feel free to comment as much as you like, nobody else even seems to read this blog, let alone comment.
    It appears you’re right, I misread your comment. Potter is a BB&L board member and he should have returned the money as a matter of fiducial responsibility. But this hardly matters as Potter stands to benefit from driving the BB&L to bankruptcy, and his keeping the money is the symbol of his evil greed, the device that drives this plot.
    I’d need to watch the film again more carefully to see which way the $8000 is going, but it seems that the important point is the money is in the custodianship of Uncle Billy in his capacity as an officer of the Building and Loan, and he would be responsible for it. But I do recall watching carefully to see how the money ends up in Potter’s hands. Billy is holding the bundle in one hand when he holds up a newspaper with both hands in front of Potter. Potter snatches the paper away, inadvertently grabbing the bundle of money too, and Billy doesn’t notice, in the heat of the moment. So I think the old fool Uncle Billy should take the heat, the money disappears while he is responsible for it. Potter could also be charged with theft, but nobody knows he has the money. –Charles]

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