In the past, I've shared a couple of old pieces that pre-date the blog. There was this essay on one of my favorite films, Days of Heaven, that I'd completed as a student. I also posted a rumination on Drugstore Cowboy that was cobbled together for a purpose outside of the blog. Since the Hollywood Theatre is about to embark on a four day run of It's a Wonderful Life, I've decided to go ahead and offer up an analysis of that film, written while in my final year at Marylhurst.
Like the Days of Heaven piece, this one's definitely not a review, more of an examination of identifiable themes running below the surface of the film. Reexamining the piece, I still like a lot of things about it and agree with most of what I had to say at the time, but it's definitely written in a voice that I rarely use anymore and it's hard to imagine that, if I were to write about the film again, I would employ the same strategy.
Oh, and if you're one of the 3 or 4 people who have never seen the film, don't read this post until you've had a chance to watch it this holiday season, as there are MANY SPOILERS throughout it.
In Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, the character of George Bailey serves as an all-American “everyman” whose existential quest for home and community provides viewers with programmatic strategies for living in American society. Essentially, the tension facing George down throughout the film is the choice between living out his dreams of world exploration or settling into a role as a reliable cornerstone of his community and family in sleepy Bedford Falls. In the contrast between George’s objective reality in Bedford Falls and the dystopian reality of Pottersville, we, along with George, are given the opportunity to examine the difference between, on the one hand, living in a community based in connection and, on the other, the isolating effects of a money-driven world where everyone is out for themselves. Below the surface of this simple fable of a man losing and rediscovering purpose, there courses an instructive rumination on the friction between the competing strains of individualism and collectivism under capitalism that lie at the base of the American mythology. It’s a Wonderful Life, in its particular consideration of this strain, offers viewers an alternative and utopian reading of the possibilities present for enriching the experience of the individual through participation and action in the interests of the social collective.
Throughout the film, George is depicted as Bedford Falls’ only buffer against the exploitation of Mr. Potter. Potter, in his relentless move to buy up all valuable interests in the town, is the living incarnation of capitalism. He consistently verbally disparages the working class citizens of Bedford Falls, all while making his fortune off of their misery. The bust of Napoleon in his office hints at both his status as the town’s principal landowner/grabber and his many attempts to destroy the building and loan. During the scene where George begs Potter for mercy, the statue even casts a shadow not unlike the shape of a buzzard, strongly hinting at Potter’s treatment of the working class as mere carrion for his unquenchable appetite for wealth and power. Beyond just signifying the imperialistic tendencies of industry and capital, Potter functions as the force that keeps class divisions in Bedford Falls from melting away, as his business practices are focused primarily on keeping the poor from ever rising above their lowly social position. This is what makes Mr. Potter the perfect foil for George. Everything that is good, decent, and charitable about George’s character is countered in the miserly, “twisted,” and self-obsessed caricature that is Potter.
After Potter is able to unethically secure the upper hand in the struggle, sending George spiraling into a crisis of faith, we are given the opportunity to view Potter’s unchecked capitalist ambition in the form of Pottersville, an alternate version of Bedford Falls where the socially progressive advocacy of George and the Building and Loan never came into existence. Without the class solidarity that George brought to the working class citizens of the town, Pottersville resembles nothing less than the real world in its depiction of cold, neon-lit spaces of consumption and depressed urban dwelling spaces.
It is in the disparity between Pottersville and Bedford Falls that the political didactic of the film is forwarded. On the surface level of the plot, we are asked to identify with George’s personal struggle as he is given the opportunity to see the value of his life in relation to the lives of his family, friends, and community. However, if we are willing to dig a bit deeper, it is not difficult to acknowledge that the interconnectivity that we witness between George and the other citizens of Bedford Falls makes life in Pottersville appear drab, miserable, and meaningless. The latter version of the town speaks to the alienating and competitive byproducts of capitalism while the former suggests that a more equitable distribution of wealth might lend itself to an increasingly vibrant, proud, and socially rich climate. This simple message could be dismissed as unsubstantial and tangential if it were not for the fact that the film was produced less than a decade after the Great Depression. With residual social anxiety and animosity focused upon financial institutions and the Potters of the world, it is not difficult to regard this pressure within the film as a polemic against the exploitation and abandonment of the working classes to the terrors of listless poverty. As such, Pottersville is an uncaring landscape littered with the deeply bruised ambitions of its agitated and morally bankrupt citizenry. Because there are no connections between the people, there are no options available to them outside the dismal status quo.
Which is why the outpouring of community support surrounding George, after his reinstatement in the “real” world of Bedford Falls, speaks so loudly to the need for opposition against the more dehumanizing aspects of the capitalist economic model, the endorsement of the community illustrates the integration of the individual into a symbiotic relationship with the larger social body. In this utopian display at the close of the film, the effect of a single member is validated, reflected, and reinforced by the supportive safety net of the people of Bedford Falls. George’s Building and Loan, continually recognized throughout the film as being focused towards building the community versus the profit building model upon which Potter’s bank is firmly established, becomes the paragon upon which sustainable strategies of community can be devised. The film optimistically hints that those who are willing to fight for their ideals in Bedford Falls will keep this best idea at hand.
It's a Wonderful Life plays for four days at the Hollywood Theatre beginning on Friday, December 21st. More info available here.
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