"It's a Wonderul Life" Again?
Frank Capra's Lessons for Christians and for Our World
I guess I don’t have to introduce my readers to It’s a Wonderful Life, which you’ve probably seen many times. It’s become a Christmas staple on television, and what some people called “Capra-corn,” for the sentiments of its director, Frank Capra, has a powerful appeal, though if you’re not in the mood for it, you may be as sour and surly as the bartender (Sheldon Leonard) in the Potterville that may be, ringing out his cash register and saying to the gathered louts and drunks, “Look at me, I’m making angels!” But I’ve never gotten tired of the movie. I even have an ambition, to learn to impersonate as many of the characters as I can, from the hero George Bailey (James Stewart), saying, in his most imitable semi-sibilant half-stutter, “You know what you are, Mr. Potter — you, your nothing but a, a spider, w-weaving your webs,” to the wicked old sinner himself, saying, in a sneer that was yet to characterize Simon bar-Sinister of happy memory, “You once called me a frustrated old man — what are you, George, but a frustrated young man,” to the angel-making gangster-like Nick, to Clarence himself, the angel who finally gets his wings, by persuading George that if he had never lived, all that he loved about his town and the people in it would never have come to pass, or would have been corrupted by the greed of the main banker in town.
Here’s what I’m recommending that you do, as you watch this movie again. In our times, we are all urged to “follow our dreams,” to make ourselves big in the world, to have quite the adventure pursuing pleasure (or distraction), glory (or a name plate on a desk), wealth (or mortgages, and expensive things we don’t use), and power (or a place in the middle of a corporation, from which you can put demands on those beneath you, while trying to get out from under the demands of those above you). From the time he was a boy, George Bailey has dreamt of going far away from little Bedford Falls, and seeing the world — think of Tahiti, and not his snowy midwestern Everytown, USA. He must deny that dream. Time and again, we see him in the film doing what he would never have chosen for himself, and that includes buying the rickety and drafty old house that his wife Mary (Donna Reed) has always loved, and that he somehow loves too, though he does not like it. His brother Harry — whom he saved from drowning in an icy pond when they were boys, losing the hearing in one ear — becomes the war-hero, not he. His friend Sam becomes the industrial tycoon, not he. And what does he get out of it? A job he is very good at, managing a business that’s often as substantial and safe as two strings tied together and fastened with a bit of chewing gum; his father’s Building and Loan. That is the sole business in Bedford Falls that resists Mr. Potter’s all-competent avarice, and it depends for its success on human confidence: on trust in persons you know, their industry, their honesty, their determination to keep their promises. It’s not just the common dollar that is in the houses the once poverty-stricken people manage to build. It’s George himself, his energy, and his willingness to give up all that he thought would make him happy in this life, this “wonderful” life.
Think, then, of not following dreams, but of keeping promises. And think of something else. Frank Capra, steeped in Catholic social thought, understood that the active moral life was economic, and the kind of economy you have will build or dilapidate the moral lives of those who participate in it. For the crucial political question is not how to make men rich, but how to make men moral: how to show them the good, and train them up to aspire to it. Potterville is richer than Bedford Falls. At least it looks richer: there are a lot more lights on the marquee of the theater, befitting the sleazy but crowd-pleasing dancing girls within. I’ll grant that the town’s gross domestic product is greater than that of Bedford Falls. But it is a harsh, suspicious, lonely place. Every one of us might be a citizen of Potterville instead of Bedford Falls, granted the wrong economic habits and a warped moral vision; a prostitute instead of a boy-crazy young woman (Gloria Grahame), a brute of a policeman instead of a friend of the peace (Ward Bond). Capra shows us, even in Bedford Falls, that goodness is a precarious thing; each of the characters bears within himself or herself the potential for self-destruction. That includes even the best of us, like Mary, who in Potterville retires into her loneliness, an old maid librarian. Then the title of the film is an ironic challenge. It is a life filled with wonders, but we are hard put to see them that way, because they come to us in the guise of the homely, the unassuming, the foolish (and is there a greater fool than Uncle Billy, whom Thomas Mitchell plays to swaggering perfection?), and things of naught. They come to us like the tempo-less interminable clanking of the piano keys as a child tries to play “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” or like the newel post that always comes off in George’s hand when he climbs the stairs, or like Uncle Billy losing thousands of dollars in a folded newspaper.
Let Herod and Potter and all the wealth and the politics be. Let Tahiti be an island far away. Come to the stable, and be instructed in goodness.
Thank you for this beautiful meditation. I’ve been thinking lately along similar lines… we need to measure economic productivity in CDP instead of GDP… C standing for cathedral, of course. We have, by one method of counting, almost infinitely more wealth than the medieval inhabitants of some “backwards” French town - but they produced the Rouen Cathedral, and we most definitely did not. I doubt we even could if we tried.
I remember some National Review types making the case once that Bailey is the villain, that Potterville clearly has the better economy/GDP and thus higher standard of living, that we should root against Jimmy Stewart. I remember similar types, also in “conservative” circles, arguing that Scrooge would have done much better for the economy had he kept saving his money at the end and not spent it so irresponsibly. God bless you, professor, for being such an eloquent voice against this sinister rubbish!
Dear Professor Esolen,
Thanks for this piece. I love this movie. It is a classic and I can't resist watching it every Christmas for all the reasons you listed so beautifully. George with his endearing gruffness swallows his pride and ambitions and time and again puts the good and the needs of others above his own. It takes ASII Clarence to show him the impact a lifetime of charitable good deeds have wrought on his little town before he realizes how blessed he is and how much he has blessed so many others. What a wonderful movie and a source of grace!