It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946) is full of post-World War II optimism, yet it’s dark too—dark in its portrayals of big landlord banking moguls such as Henry F. Potter (effusively overplayed by Lionel Barrymore), and dark in what it shows happening to George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) when he thinks his life is about to crash and burn in the worst of ways.
In films like this one and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), director Frank Capra dramatizes his belief that the virtues and essential goodness of the common man (or woman) will inevitably prevail against evil. We see here the stereotypical but well intended portrayals of ethnic groups such as the Italians and Irish (as well as a few glimpses of African Americans). Capra gives us his idealized and earnest views of young love, family life, and the American Dream. The film almost overwhelms itself with ebullient views of human character.
Although the film for me has aged very well, I wonder how younger generations view it. Last night at a local showing at the local arts cinema, Cine, I saw many parents and grandparents escorting their not entirely unwilling but not necessarily overenthusiastic children and grandchildren to see the film. How did they view its portrait of marriage, with Donna Reed’s character submitting willingly and without question to Georgie Bailey’s job and to his sour disposition when things go bad? How do they react to the patronizing view of immigrants like the Italians, or its notion that banks can serve the poor by playing fast and loose with their money? Do they take seriously George Bailey’s telling his customers that if they trust him with their money (which has temporarily disappeared) things will come out right in the end?
How do they reconcile the spirit of the season with this venerated holiday film in which a man so depressed and horrified by the apparent failure of his life that he mistreats his wife and children, drinks himself into a stupor at a local bar, and then tries to commit suicide?
These are interesting questions, but the possible answers don’t overwehelm the good-heartedness and innocence and wonderful human force of the film. George Bailey is the American hero who fails to achieve his life’s ambitions (traveling the world, building magnificent projects, escaping the provincial and limiting confines of Bedford Falls) and who allows himself to be retained by the small town savings and loan founded by his father, by the love of Mary, and the admiration of his townspeople—they admire him because he is at the heart of it as good a man as one might find—and that is all one might ask for in what may well be the greatest American Christmas film of all.
When I first showed this film to my children some years ago, they were captivated not by George Bailey’s character or his rowdy household or the lively array of comic characters, but by the angels discoursing in the firmament about his life and fate. In a way, this film that pivots on the notion that a man can view his world as it might have been had he never been born really does examine the most cosmic, nay, existential of issues.
Without Mr. Potter, we would never have had Montgomery Burns.