We are half an hour into It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey’s father, Peter, has died. In a boardroom at the Bailey Building and Loan, a portrait of Peter Bailey (Samuel S Hinds) on the rear wall looks down upon George (James Stewart). In the left foreground, Potter (Lionel Barrymore) - Peter Bailey’s negative inversion, the ‘bad father,’ the richest and meanest man in town - looks on. A board member informs everyone that George “gave up his trip to Europe to help straighten things out here these past few months”; now he is set to depart for ‘school.’ As George gets up to leave the room, Potter launches into a speech about Peter Bailey and the Building and Loan. Barrymore’s delectable creaky floorboard voice inquires why Ernie Bishop (a taxi driver - with a policeman friend called Bert) has been given a loan when he was refused one by the bank. George tells Potter that he handled the loan. “Friend of yours?” asks Potter. George nods. “You see,” expounds Potter,
“if you shoot pool with some employee here you can come and borrow money! What does that get us? A discontented lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir ‘em up and fill their head with a lot of impossible ideas! Now, I say-”
Script and performance work together wonderfully here, with the respective rhythms of “discontented lazy rabble” and “thrifty working class” underlining the senses Potter wants to invest them with. Potter is indeed an eloquent speaker. But George goes one better. He interrupts Potter, and in best, faltering, earnest, Jimmy Stewart-style, tells him:
George and Potter square off.
“Just a minute! Just, just a minute now, hold on Mr Potter just a minute. Now you’re right when you say my father was no business-man, I know that. Why he ever started this cheap [Penny Anny] Building and Loan I’ll never know, but neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character because his whole life was - why, in the twenty five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing he never once thought of himself, isn’t that right Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums Mr Potter. And what’s wrong with that? Well, here, you’re all businessmen here. Don’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You, you said that - what’d you say just a minute ago? They, they had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home. Wait! W-wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that-that, that-. Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this Mr Potter that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well is it too much to ask to have ‘em work and pay and live and die in a coupla decent rooms and a bath? Anyway my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.”
This exchange would be worth quoting at length simply for the pleasure it affords, but I have done so also because it neatly crystallizes something that runs through the whole movie, something that many critics have homed in on as its main feature: a dramatization of a conflict between two brands of capitalism. Potter is the bad, acquisitive, corporate capitalist. As has been noted in an early issue of the journal Framework, Potter is a hoarder of ‘dead matter,’ and his brand of capitalism is associated with sterility and death: Potter’s disability renders him symbolically impotent, and he ‘comes into his own at times of death and disaster’ (Potter buys up businesses when the Depression hits). Peter and George Bailey, on the other hand, are always sending money ‘out again for the good and enjoyment of the community.’ (It is worth noting briefly that a similar exchange occurs in another film made in 1946 - The Best Years of Our Lives, the one that beat It’s a Wonderful Life to all the Oscars. Fredric March plays a wealthy banker and ex-serviceman who must persuade his superior that a loan to a farmer with no collateral was a good investment.)
The run on the Building and Loan.
Although a later crisis scene, where George successfully defuses a run on the Bailey Building and Loan by explaining to the crowd (all of whom he knows by name) that their money is tied up in one another’s properties, has something of the cooperative about it, the dramatization is, precisely, concerned with two brands of capitalism, rather than focussing on an alternative way in which a society might be organized (although, as I will proceed to argue, the analysis presented by the movie suggests that whilst benevolent capitalism is preferable to corporate capitalism, it remains both unstable and potentially stultifying). We should also note that, whilst the speech quoted above shows George Bailey/Jimmy Stewart to be a folk hero, he is not (at least, not in this movie) the ‘everyman’ that he is often described as. Gilberto Perez, in his wonderful book The Material Ghost, notes that Frank Capra’s ‘portrayal of the “little people” he purportedly loves tends to sentimentality and condescension. His politics are no sort of New Deal populism but a kind of middle-class noblesse oblige.’ Indeed, in George’s speech above, he does not identify himself with the working class Potter refers to: he speaks of ‘them,’ ‘they,’ ‘their.’ Later in the movie, when Potter tries to tempt George with a well-paid job, he tells him “George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel; he is an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man,” who “hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do,” and is “trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic eaters.” George tacitly assents to Potter’s astute analysis: he does not like what Potter has said, but he can find no way to contradict it.
George is trapped time and again by the demands of the Bailey Building and Loan, which is always one mistake or crisis away from ruin. His father’s death means he misses his trip to Europe. As he is leaving for school, someone chases out of the boardroom to tell him that unless he agrees to run the Building and Loan the board will vote with Potter. When his brother Harry returns from college, the agreement having been that he would assume George’s duties, Harry is married and has other plans. And when the run mentioned above occurs, the just-married George has to use his honeymoon money to loan to his customers.
George has trouble with the gate.
The other thing that keeps George in Bedford Falls is Mary (Donna Reed), and Mary’s desire for George - and George’s desire for Mary. In an utterly remarkable scene, George has been sent to Mary’s house by his mother. George takes a detour via the centre of town, making Violet, Bedford Falls’s bad girl, an offer of mountain wandering along the way, which she refuses, much to the amusement of a crowd of onlookers (meetings, ceremonies, crowds, informal social gatherings: all these things are absolutely central to Capra’s movies, and this is one of the key ways in which Capra uses It’s a Wonderful Life’s Christmas setting). Nevertheless, he finds himself outside Mary’s house, knocking a stick along the fence posts petulantly. He eventually agrees to go inside, his reluctance being further dramatized by a gate that refuses to open (this is the sort of thing that helped make the classical Hollywood cinema wonderful!). Once inside, Mary’s attempts to recreate, or at least share a remembrance of, the first romantic night the two shared are repeatedly met with only sulky half-acknowledgment by George. Mary’s shrill mother, who, as we see in this scene, thinks that (George’s old friend) Sam Wainwright is a good match for Mary, and George himself a decidedly bad one, adds to the scene’s humour. George storms out, returning for his hat just as Sam Wainwright calls, long-distance. (To paraphrase a James Stewart character from a Hitchcock film made two years later, a psychoanalyst would say he didn’t really ‘forget’ his hat.) Sam tells Mary to get George on the phone, and the two share the earpiece while Sam talks about getting them in on the “ground floor” of a plastics business. At such close proximity to Mary (and her hair? her scent? - something of this nature), the desire George has been able to crankily suppress until now can be suppressed no longer. But he is still not happy about it. In a jaw-dropping getting-together speech, George grabs Mary’s shoulders and tells her:
'Now you listen to me! I don't want any plastics...'
Now you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics and I don’t want any ground floors and I don’t want to get married ever to anyone! You understand that? I wanna do what I wanna do! And you’re … and you’re … oh Mary, Mary!
(A wipe cut takes us to George and Mary coming down the stairs, accompanied by ‘The Wedding March.)
The culminating crisis for the Bailey Building and Loan comes one Christmas Eve, when Uncle Billy, via a bit of business with a newspaper - a newspaper containing news of George’s brother’s congressional medal of honour for his war efforts - thrusts eight thousand dollars of Bailey Building and Loan money into the hands of, of all people, Potter. After a long search for the money, George loses his rag first with Uncle Billy, then with his wife and four children, shouting, and kicking household objects (the latter action runs through the movie). It takes the movie a long time to get to Christmas Eve (it starts on Christmas Eve, but then over half its running time is taken up showing how George arrived at this point - beginning with his childhood), but the distressing scene at George’s house makes great use of the Christmas setting. One of George’s children repeatedly plays a carol on the piano; another, younger child, after being desperately embraced by a quietly sobbing George, obliviously throws tinsel over him.
George's son pours tinsel on him.
George ‘crawls to Potter,’ who once again offers an astute, if heartless, analysis of George’s situation. He throws George’s indictment back at him, calling him a bitter and twisted young man, and after inquiring after the value of George’s life insurance policy (fifteen thousand dollars) and its equity (five hundred dollars), darkly quips that he is worth more dead than alive.
The stage is thus set for George to commit suicide. One hour and forty minutes into the movie’s two hours and ten minutes, he stands on a bridge, looking down at the dark water below. Enter Clarence, an angel, second class, who has been sent from heaven to help George - and, all being well, earn his wings in the process (ironic that George even helps his guardian angel). Clarence is very much a deus ex machine - a fantastical intrusion which ensures that things turn out well - but it is important to be specific about what it is that Clarence does. First of all, Clarence does not stop George from jumping, or rescue him from the water. Quite the opposite, in fact. Clarence jumps so that George will jump not to kill himself, but to save Clarence. Of course, Clarence is in the right place at the right time, but George would have done the same for anyone. It still remains for Clarence, having averted the act of suicide, to persuade George of the worth of his existence. (But do we imagine, the moment having passed, that George would have gone back out to the bridge and jumped again?).
Moreover, the solution to George’s immediate problem is not a supernatural one. Rather, the whole community spontaneously rallies round George and his family, bringing money to help them. These things then, make It’s a Wonderful Life’s ending and how the movie reaches it different from, say, the earlier Capra/Stewart collaboration, Mr Smith Goes to Washington. In that movie, the idealistic senator played by Stewart is only saved, at the very last minute, from being ruined by a political machine that sets out to slur him, by a member of that machine (played by Claude Raines) breaking down in shame (and also attempting suicide) and raving before the Senate. It’s a Wonderful Life’s resolution, by contrast, in no way relies upon any belated benevolence on the part of Potter.
'I want a big one!'
It’s a Wonderful Life would also be very different if it were not framed from the beginning with Bedford Falls’s prayers for George being heard and answered by heavenly onlookers. If Clarence were to appear unheralded, so to speak, with just thirty minutes of running time remaining, this would doubtless seem more preposterous than it does given that divine intervention is established from the very outset as a narrative premise of this movie. This device also allows the movie to have some self-reflexive fun. As Clarence’s superiors try to fill him in on George’s life, we first see a fuzzy screen. Clarence complains that he cannot see anything. “Oh, I forgot,” one of the other voices says, “you haven’t got your wings yet.” Gradually, the screen comes into focus, for him and for us. Thus are we reminded, jaded viewers that we are, of the rather magical nature of cinematic images. A little later, there is some extremely cute signposting. “Something happens here you’ll have to remember later on,” we and Clarence are told as we watch a twelve year old George Bailey playing on the ice (George will save his brother from drowning, and lose the hearing in his left ear in the process). Slightly further on still, the movie freeze-frames on its first shot of the adult George, which is also the first shot of the movie’s star. “I wanna big one!” says George, arms spread to give a hyperbolic impression of the dimensions of the suitcase he has in mind for his travels. The deep voice comes in again. “I want you to take a good look at that face.” “It’s a good face, I like it,” opines the voice of Henry Travers. “I like it! I like George Bailey.” We cannot help but agree.
The lasso motif.
The precision and gracefulness of the plotting of It’s a Wonderful Life is entirely typical of the classical Hollywood cinema at its best. Great fun is had by the movie, and can be had by the viewer, in tracing the recurrence of certain objects, motifs, or characters: Zuzu’s petals, the newel post that George keeps lifting from the staircase rail (and his reactions to this), George’s ‘trick ear,’ the picture that Mary draws of George lassoing the moon, Uncle Billy’s finger-strings (and his drinking), and Violet Bick’s strategic narrative appearances - to name but a few. Such attention to detail, though, is also particularly important to an ‘alternative-world’ narrative, which is one of the things It’s a Wonderful Life is. Characters, places and events must be delineated with a certain precision if their alterations or absences in an alternative world are to be recognized or appreciated.
It’s a Wonderful Life becomes most like an existing Christmas narrative in its last thirty minutes, which bear clear affinities with A Christmas Carol. (The homecoming, another Christmas narrative, does feature in It’s a Wonderful Life - Harry Bailey makes it home in the final scene - but does not drive the movie. It may also be of interest to note that Christmas gifts barely figure in the movie. The only thing George is asked if he has brought home on Christmas Eve is a wreath. Of course, a cascade of monetary gifts concludes and resolves the narrative - and there is surely much to be said about the concepts of gifts and reciprocity within a capitalist social organization - but the point is nevertheless an interesting one.) George, upon exclaiming to Clarence that he wishes he’d never been born, is shown by Clarence what Bedford Falls would have been like had this been the case.
Without George, Bedford Falls is very different. Indeed, it is not even called Bedford Falls, but Pottersville. George and Clarence’s first stop is a bar (George’s last stop before his suicide), which has also changed its name. It is no longer “Martini’s,” a friendly bar, but “Nick’s,” a place where “hard drinks” are served to “men who wanna get drunk fast.” George and Clarence are violently ejected, along with Gower - an old, ex-prisoner drunk in this world, because the young George Bailey was not there to correct a mistake he made with one of his prescriptions. Pottersville’s main street is ablaze with neon: bars, strip clubs, pawn shops. Sirens blare. Violet Bick in this world is dragged, flailing and screaming, out of nightclubs by the police. Ernie’s wife left him. Ma Bailey is a pinched-faced old widow; Mary is a mousey, bespectacled spinster-librarian. Bailey Park, the housing development that the Building and Loan funded, is a graveyard. Harry Bailey drowned as a child, and thus everybody on the transporter that Harry saved, in the George Bailey universe, died too.
“Strange isn’t it?” Clarence asks rhetorically, “each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole doesn’t he?” This is certainly a key way of reading the significance of the alternate world sequence. However, a question that critics have also asked is: what does this say about the mode of social organization represented in the movie? In attempting to answer such a question, these critics have tended to focus on the local, Bedford Falls versus Pottersville distinctions (and to ignore other elements - most notably the issue of Harry Bailey’s non-existence). Pottersville, they note, is very much a film noir city in its iconography, types and music. To smirk at the crudity of the movie’s representations of ‘fallenness,’ or to construe these as prudishness or Puritanism is to miss the point somewhat. Verisimilitude is not the only, or even the best, way to dramatize a culture’s deep conflicts or modes of self-understanding. By contrasting two generically familiar ways of representing urban life, the movie works with economy and clarity. What makes Pottersville so nightmarish is that there are no displays of affection or solicitude - the way this world is organized, it is suggested, means that there is little space for such behaviour.
To phrase this in terms of another recurring concern of Hollywood cinema, it is a question of how drives and desires are channelled. Repression, as Freud understood, is not simply a bad thing: it is a precondition of any society/culture and its products - of both maximum security jails and orchestral symphonies. One cannot be a star athlete, a filmmaker, or simply a functioning member of society, without a great deal of repression. We are not allowed to overlook the psychological cost of George’s entrapped existence, but nor should we overlook his achievements. In Bedford Falls, the financial and sexual economy overseen by the Baileys is productive (whatever problems are attached to this); in Pottersville, energies are dissipated, and capital is concentrated in the figure of one man. Bedford Falls seems to me preferable to Pottersville, but this does not lead to the conclusion that ‘benevolent capitalism’ is ok. The final point that needs to be made in this regard is that if the only thing standing between this system and that represented by Potter, between Bedford Falls and Pottersville, is one man and his extraordinary self-abnegation and efforts, then surely that system is far too fragile.
The classical Hollywood cinema tends to present social dramas embodied in interpersonal conflicts, and It's a Wonderful Life has been pointed to (along with The Reckless Moment [1949; another great Christmas movie], and Shadow of a Doubt ) as a movie whose analysis of bourgeois capitalism is particularly rigorous, and even potentially radical. Hand in hand with the strategy of personal embodiment of social conflict goes Hollywood's star system. Richard Dyer, in an early theorization of how stars work, proposed that they embody and, to an extent, reconcile social contradictions in a particularly compelling way - and, further, that this might be one way of thinking about charisma. James Stewart's star persona can certainly be understood in such terms: as Andrew Britton has pointed out, if Stewart is a folk hero figure, he also keeps in our minds, through especially emotional performances, that submitting to the life of a working man, husband and father comes at quite an emotional-psychological cost.
'Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!'
I want to end on a happier note, though. The ‘resolution’ aspect of social contradictions is achieved wonderfully in It’s a Wonderful Life. If this piece has been slightly shorter on the joys of the movie than its politics, this is because the former are tougher to analyze, but I certainly do not want to deny them (or divorce them from the politics). The sight of Jimmy Stewart, returned to his reality, running joyously amok through Bedford Falls, smiling, and shouting greetings in his Jimmy Stewart voice, is possibly the utmost of this movie’s profusion of splendours, and it makes me feel extremely happy.