Monday, December 5, 2011

Why It's A Wonderful Life is More Relevant Now Than Ever

Last weekend my wife and I got a wild hair to sit down and watch It's a Wonderful Life, a way to combine our live of 1940s Hollywood with the desire to get into the Christmas spirit. It had been a long time since I'd seen it, and watching it with new eyes I realized that it is one of those films whose deeper meanings have been forgotten. We think of it today as a heart-warming Christmas parable, but in doing so we forget that the main character is driven by his miserable circumstances to lash out at his family and come close to committing suicide. George Bailey, like a lot of people beaten down by life, wonders if he'd been better off never having lived in the first place. This is some pretty dark stuff.

This time around, I paid special attention to the character of Old Man Potter, a greedy banker and slumlord who refers to the immigrant and ethnic residents of his properties as "garlic eaters" and mocks George for trying to give the less fortunate a leg up rather than squeezing them for as much money as possible. Despite the ornate and old fashioned trappings of his office, Potter is a rather contemporary figure. Like the ownership class today, his business decisions are motivated entirely by lucre, with absolutely zero concern for humanity. The local politicians do his bidding, and Potter almost successfully ruins George through an act of naked theft. Because of this apparent critique of the heartlessness of unfettered capitalism, the FBI in 1947 considered It's A Wonderful Life rife with communist propaganda.

When George famously visits his hometown as it would be had he never existed, it has become a mean-spirited, unseemly place where immorality rules and no one cares about the common good. Unlike the Gingrich types today who like to bloviate and bluster about traditional morality while supporting laissez-faire capitalism -that solvent most potent to traditional social bonds- Frank Capra understood that the two cannot coexist. You cannot reduce other human beings to lines on a ledger and expect to create a society that values anything other than the cash nexus. Capra was hardly a radical, but back in 1946, when he made this film, Americans took for granted that a concern for humanity and greed were not compatible.

In our own lives, where many of us are often beset by the kind of self-doubt and economic hardship that drives George Bailey to the brink, it's important to remember what really matters. For years It's a Wonderful Life has been seen as a reminder that family, friends, and community really matter in our own lives. Perhaps we should also see it as a reminder that treating people with dignity and respect is better for our society, too.

1 comment:

Brian I said...

Great points. Whenever I am apartment hunting and I meet a slumlord who clearly sees dollar signs whenever he meets a new, potential resident...I always think of Old Man Potter. There's nothing the rich love more than to make money by renting out poorly maintained properties to people who can't by their own houses. Unless, perhaps, it is to loan their money to poor people and get it back with interest...