For a generation or two, America’s favorite Christmas movie was Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and it’s easy to see why. The movie stars Jimmy Stewart, the most all-American star in old Hollywood, and shows him at his best. He has a lovely family and his drama is the drama of self-government, the test of an American national character then still thought to be defined by small town life.
The movie is much harder to recognize today, in a country not only urbanized, but also globalized. For one thing, taste has changed from earnest to cynical. Society has also changed. The “traditional” family is no longer the shared ideal. Women rather than men dominate higher education and the job opportunities that follow from it. Neither the situation in It’s A Wonderful Life nor its protagonist, George Bailey, could be called all-American.
The only immediately recognizable part of the story is Pottersville, George’s nightmare vision of a world without him. Instead of the charming Bedford Falls, where family, neighbors, and friends give the community strength and affection, in the third act Capra offers us a vision of the big city, where people are strangers.
On Main St. in Pottersville, the evening atmosphere is a mix of blaring jazz brass and police sirens. There are bars, billiards parlors advertising prize fights, a hotel, a late-night dancing club, a pawn broker and loan shark, and any number of other joints, including one where the girls get arrested (Violet, played by Gloria Grahame, who was about to become a star). To George, it’s a an overwhelming nightmare. To us, it’s familiar: the America we know today.
Pottersville is what’s now called “vibrant”, but it’s a deeply unhappy place. There is no friendliness in the people. Their mores don’t include self-restraint or shame. Cruelty is casual, indifference brazen. There are no community institutions. Maybe that’s because there’s no development to build family houses, the bedrock of American civilization. That hits a little too close to home!
Nobody knows George Bailey in Pottersville. Indeed, there’s no room for a man like him in a place like that. He’s treated worst precisely in the moment of his agony, taken for a lunatic, a drunk, a madman, a criminal. This, too, is our America, a society that has little use or little place for young men, especially the ambitious ones.
Perhaps this is the way to begin to think about a movie so many millions have loved for so long. It’s A Wonderful Lifeoffers a standard by which to judge and reject a place like Pottersville. As a work of art, it doesn’t just offer us an image, but puts every effort into encouraging us emotionally to feel as George does, to share his suffering and understand for once what fear moved him to work so hard to keep his small town civilized. As he learns why his life matters, we’re also supposed to learn that it does—that we need protagonists, because we need leaders.
Now, let’s turn from Pottersville to Bedford Falls. The former is an eminently liberal place, easily recognized because major cities in America have long been more liberal than the states they dominate. The ACLU would approve of its toleration of a wide variety of lifestyles.
The latter is, however, only ambiguously conservative, which makes it more difficult to recognize. Rather than an escapist paradise, Bedford Falls represents an older ideal of limited acquisition, of shared prosperity and widespread property owning, but without exorbitant wealth. Hence, its only villain is a banker who does not share George’s generosity. Bedford Falls is an artful mix of the realities of American life and our idealism. If you take away its community life, what you see is a very nice suburb, of which we have very many and will soon have more. But Bedford Falls is more than that. It’s admirable because of the relationships among its people, not just because of its clean and quiet streets.
Capra is not a sentimentalist—nor, as an immigrant, does he suffer from nostalgia. He sees with the outsider’s clarity that Americans prefer to avoid the city because they like their privacy, their own home, and some grass. Just avoiding the city isn’t enough, though. The American character, at its best, forges an alternative to the noisy anonymity of Pottersville.
Capra helps clarify the issue by showing Bedford Falls as the stage of a great and unusual agreement between a very clever and proud man, George, and the poor. People so poor that they aspire to become the “ordinary Americans” whom we read about in embarrassed journalism that attempts feebly to conceal its contempt for boring people.
George doesn’t share that contempt for normies. He burns with a passion that comes from religion and faith in democracy, so he sees in them not only his fellow men, but a proving ground for humanity as such. That is a kind of philanthropy, love of human beings, that we almost never talk about.
This brings us to the strangest thing about It’s A Wonderful Life. George is not a nice guy. He courts his wife by screaming at her that he doesn’t want to be tied down. He loves his home town by angrily trying to leave it behind. He wants to become a Hemingway character, traveling the world and taking great risks. Capra’s elegant solution leads to patriotism and a happy end by offering George a more dangerous adventure in Bedford Falls than he could find anywhere else, putting his soul to the test and tempting him with suicide.
Capra’s genius as an artist shows in giving Jimmy Stewart his most famous character by casting him against type. George is much closer to manly nihilism than to the boy scout of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). George epitomizes America in the way his experience of community encourages his fantasy of being alone. Whereas most of us are satisfied to retire to suburbia, to have a home of our own, he’d like to escape civilization itself, the better to be free.
Capra is a modernist as an artist, always rethinking the problem of preserving individuality against a negative form of egalitarianism defined by hopelessness about the possibility that particular lives matter. His movies are an education for freedom, for the confidence to stand up for oneself. For that reason, his plots are more complicated than we tend to remember, because they have to solve the very difficult problem of reconciling his protagonists and his audience without betraying either party to the national agreement to applaud a deserved happy end. This is the meaning of the old joke by a lesser artist, John Cassavetes: “Maybe there never was an America in the thirties. Maybe it was all Frank Capra.”
Watch It’s A Wonderful Life again this week and you might begin to reflect, as I have, on the problem of conservatism. Outside the blue cities and their disorder, we fantasize that we live in Bedford Falls, a world without trouble, where things more or less work. A world without George Bailey and the drama he brings. Unlike Capra, respectable conservatives are decidedly against George and anyone like him. Our institutions accordingly produce endless talk of “leadership” and no leaders anyone cares to follow.
Gentle conservatives condescend to George endlessly for his faults if they talk about the movie, as though Capra somehow made a mistake in choosing his protagonist. They sometimes prefer his lovely wife Mary, who is better liked because of her mediocrity. She threatens nothing and, without George, in Pottersville, ends up a meager spinster.
But absent our George Baileys, we’re not doing so well ourselves. We’ve largely replaced impressive men with endless reproaches for the men we do have. Liberals overexcited about “toxic masculinity” have no monopoly on this line of criticism. Everyone from business class Republicans to the evangelical churches criticizes men for every imaginable fault of commission or omission. Yet contempt for men has led to very successful women who say they are very unhappy. Meanwhile, church membership is collapsing and the economy is doing pretty badly, especially concerning labor force participation for the men who are supposed to be running everything.
George is so proud that he stands up to the town villain, the greedy banker Potter (the great Lionel Barrymore). We admire that, but we don’t see how it’s connected to the way he’s so proud that he’d rather commit suicide than ask the people he’s helped for help in return. George is a “disruptor” not because he offers a new invention or makes a great fortune, but because he faces up to fundamental questions of morality and competence and is capable of experiencing great love and suffering. Isn’t that much more human than the kinds of success advertised in our times?
The gentle vision of conservatism, where men are only good as their sacrifice for their families, goes together with another more libertarian version, where sacrifice is for suckers and success alone is the goal. George’s younger brother Harry, who is more adventurous, or his best friend Sam Wainwright, who is wealthier and more glamorous, would be the ideals of this other vision. Yet these characters cannot be true protagonists, because no audience really admires them. Perhaps they’re not even very interesting. Self-interest alone doesn’t say much about what’s beautiful in America, nor even about the remarkable intelligence required to deal with our great troubles.
Capra has room for a lot of different kinds of Americans, but he insists that America needs natural leaders. If you like, there’s no Christmas gift like having George Baileys around. He points to this by a strange gift the angel Clarence makes George at the end: Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, a manual for success in modern America more realistic and more charming than all our business and self-help books put together. That, I suggest, is what conservatism needs now, what it would take to bring together different factions and different ways of life.