As the film negative of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life is a fantastical parable that goes straight to the core of the individualistic ethos and challenges everything that is dear to western societies and their ideas about self-realisation.
How does one reconcile the two contradictory aspects attached to this classic film, i.e. the long tradition of playing the movie as a Christmas staple with the fact that the story can be taken as a communist yarn? The whole tale of George Bailey and the obstacles he encounters in his pursuit of happiness could be summarised as the story of someone’s frustrated dreams. By the end, with a little help from an aural friend, he is convinced that his altruistic attitude has all been for the best. If such posture does not show America’s approval of the common good and the collective well-being, then I don’t know what does.
On the Christmas Eve of 1945, in Bedford Falls, George Bailey (James Stewart) wants to jump off a bridge and kill himself. After an existence punctuated by big and small frustrations, he feels trapped in a life chosen by everyone he knows but himself. Since he’s been a little child George dreams of travelling around the world and building big things. When his father dies of a stroke, he feels compelled to run the family business while his brother Harry goes to college. When Harry returns home, married and with a proposal of a job to work for his father-in-law, once again George postpones his own plans to keep running the company. He then marries Mary Hatch (Donna Reed). However, after his uncle Billy loses $ 8,000 and this series of misfortunes sink his spirits, George decides to end it all.
Before George has a chance to jump, angel Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent from heaven to show him how life would look like without him. His mother (Beulah Bondi) would become a bitter woman living in a boarding house; his uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) would be in a mental institution; his brother Harry (Todd Karns) would be dead (drowned as a child) and not become a war hero; his wife Mary would be unmarried and very unhappy; all the homeowners who bought houses through his housing project, Bailey Park, would still be living under slum conditions; and his hometown, now Pottersville, would be under the claws of master villain Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Thus, George forgets suicide, counts his blessings and lives happily ever after.
..Shattered Dreams Dancing by the Light of the Moon.
Perhaps, the reckoning of America’s condescending attitude towards communism is long overdue. An indoctrination that was necessary at some point in the 1950s, then became merely convenient in the 1970s/1980s, and has nowadays turned into an obsolete ideological handicap, hatred of everything collective is no longer credible. Capitalism might have won the ideological war – or is it that the Soviet Union as the embodiment of communism just imploded?! – but for two decades it has proven to be a deficient system, unable to deal with modern ills such as widespread social inequality, worker’s rights’ violations, adult illiteracy and more.
It’s a Wonderful Life is not only a critique of rapacious capitalism and the stifling of a person’s search for happiness, but it is also a fable about valuing things one sometimes overlooks. It’s all well to argue that the pursuit of happiness should guide a person through their life but when push comes to shove, this man or woman might find that other values other than his most blind self-interest count for more. Every single time George wants something and is denied, it is by the love and compassion he feels for his family and fellow human beings. These are difficult to be quantified and measured against the benefits he would reap had his decisions been different.
At the end, he sacrificed his dreams for the well-being of others, but the life he was left with, although taken for granted by himself, is a pretty good one. He has a loving wife, a wonderful family, the respect of many in his community and the satisfaction that plenty of people benefited from his altruistic actions. I’m not here to say that this life is necessarily better than one which has George Bailey as a respected architect/engineer living in a great American metropolis with a head full of memories of his international trips and great building projects. I’m just hinting that these are abstracts that cannot be compared. One life necessarily precludes the other, and both contain pros and cons.
For the modern American viewer, the film seems crammed with ambivalent values. Even if one has to hold a one-sided kind of worldview that conforms to an agenda of left against right, liberal versus conservative, east-and-west-coast in contrast to mid-America. Thus, when we confront the conservative way It’s a Wonderful Life sees the family, religion and community with its open minded approach to how to run a business and what might make us happy, then the film seems totally schizophrenic. In fact, there’s where it lies the film’s wise message. In its balanced and humane attitude towards life.
Nobody in their right mind would advocate communism as an economic system. Even Marx’s version – which, it has to be said, has never been tested – would probably be ineffective to deal with natural human greed. Even if we agree that to own the means of production that effectively enslave others and to have excessive private property that is beyond any person’s ability to enjoy it would be morally wrong, we would not be able to change the way human beings operate. George and his Bailey Park are just trying to make the case for a more compassionate capitalist structure. One that admits that 1950s America’s posturing against communists is similar to the Soviet Union’s towards its own dissidents.
This oddly wonderful masterpiece of Americana deserves its place in everyone’s home as much as St. Nicholas does.