Only one film has ever made me cry with happiness. Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life may be 72 years old but it is still a staple of the Christmas season and of American cinema as a whole. It is surprising, then, in light of its associations with festivity, that the film has such strong socialist themes and was at one point investigated by the FBI for being “Communist propaganda”.
The film follows the life of George Bailey, a man who aspires to travel the world and become an architect. Circumstances force George to leave his dreams behind and to take up the job of running his late father’s bank and building association instead. When he is accused of losing $8,000 from the bank, he is threatened with debt and imprisonment and goes to a bridge to attempt suicide. It is only when a wingless angel named Clarence shows him what the town would be like if he had never been born that he understands how much value he has in the town. Realising that he wants to live, George goes home to embrace his family, just as the townspeople offer him enough money to pay off the bank’s debt.
At first, the narrative might seem to be a typical black and white, feel-good slice of Americana, with its white picket fences, celestial appearances and Jimmy Stewart at his most wholesome. However, the antagonist of the film, Mr Potter, is the embodiment of miserliness and capitalist greed. He aims to have a monopoly over the town, with people having no choice but to rent his poorly constructed homes that they could be evicted from at any moment. He is a caricature, but one no longer so difficult to believe in – an early 20th century Jeff Bezos or Rupert Murdoch, of sorts. We live in a world run by Mr Potters, and Bedford Falls without a George Bailey is not too far from where we are now.
The 2008 financial crisis was the worst recession since the Great Depression. Redundancy, cash-for-gold adverts, small businesses shutting down, and food banks opening up – these facets of the recession are all imprinted on the national consciousness. It seems that Capra’s vision of ‘Pottersville’ was not too much of an exaggeration of financial misery and exploitation.
In the film, Bailey’s Buildings and Loans Association is, according to the protagonist, the only institution stopping the people of Bedford Falls from having to go to Potter. George may not be carrying Das Kapital around on him, but he does offer something more cooperative and ethical. He at least cares about the humanity and quality of life of others. Perhaps it says more about the severity of the anxiety during the Red Scare that this film was considered communist, but at the very least it makes a stand against the dehumanising effects of capitalism. As his brother says at the end of the film, George is “the richest man in town” – not because of his finances, but because he has touched the lives of so many people and has so many people who love him.
The film’s ending may be sentimental, but its power only comes about because the rest of the film is so truly depressing. We see George stuck in this small town, his every chance to leave shot down by chance. He wants to travel the world but has to stay put after his father dies of a stroke (implied to have been caused because of the stress of having to deal with Potter). He cannot even go on his honeymoon, because the Wall Street Crash has driven the townspeople into a panic and he has to use his own money to keep his bank open. Noticeably, it is never anyone else’s fault, but rather the result of an unfairly structured society and the unfairness of life itself.
By the end of the film, George is still working at the bank and has still never left Bedford Falls, but he sees that he never needed to leave in order to live a fulfilled life. In this way the film is realistic, in telling its viewer that if your dreams do not work out, you need to move on and find meaning elsewhere in life. I agree with Wendell Jamieson when, in his piece for The New York Times, he claims that the film is “a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams … It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher, and your oppressively perfect wife”.
Other Christmas films rarely get so terrifying. Home Alone might have its unhappy moments, but you certainly never see the McCallister family in despair because they believe their life insurance is worth more than their existence. The film may feature angels and an alternate reality, but it is among the most realistic of Christmas films.
One of the most harrowing moments is set in the midst of a blizzard, when George is standing on a bridge over a roaring river. His eyes gleam wildly in the black and white shot and the film is suddenly so real that it is uncomfortable. Capra does not shy away from the darker moments of the film, but rather embraces them. This depiction of George is sadly relevant in 2018, in light of severely underfunded mental health services and the huge role debt and financial issues play in suicide rates, especially among men. Such extreme capitalist greed has fatal consequences, and not everyone has a guardian angel.
The film might have fantastic elements and embody the sentimental festive spirit we all know and love, but the real world is always interfering – be it the Great Depression, the Second World War, or simply the crushing weight of life. However, in an increasingly cynical world, perhaps we need the sort of film that shows that problems can be overcome – the sort of film that believes in the best of people. Potter may embody the harsh reality of the world as it is, but the ending shows the world as it should be; one where big banking is not the be all and end all, and where the people in a town will rally together to save one man. The kind of world that is so beautiful and hopeful that it makes me cry, because if George Bailey can be saved, then maybe we all can.