Sure, It’s a Wonderful Life is a heavy dose of Christian propaganda, but it also deals a heavy helping of what Fox News Fanatics would call Socialism. This, methinks, is a good thing.
It’s a testament to the film making and propaganda skills of Frank Capra, the director of the Holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, that even a grown male atheist like me weeps like a school girl receiving the news of her puppy being run over by a mac truck when watching, for the 900th time, the final scene in the film. George’s older brother Harry has just come home from the war to join the throng of well wishers in the Bailey home after George, in the process of helping a bumbling Angel get his wings, realizes that he really does want to “live again”. Harry Bailey, raising a glass and silencing the crowd says, “A toast to my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
Cue “Auld Lang Syne” and let the waterworks commence.
For those of you living in a cave and don’t know the plot of the movie like the back of your hand, George Bailey is driven to brink of suicide after a life where he’s self-asphyxiated. He martyred himself for his family, for his town and for his GOD. After his bastard dumb uncle Billy loses a wad of the Building and Loan’s cash that will put George (the chief of the Building & Loan) in jail, George thinks about suicide.
Enter the plot device that owes much to the ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carroll, the Angel sent from Heaven: Clarence. In the early Victorian era, Dickens shows us the redemption of a rich old miser. In Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life our hero needs redemption not because he is evil; rather, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is so good that the whole town might just crumble under the thumb of hyper capitalist Scrooge-esq figure of Henry Potter if he were to end the heart ache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. So Clarence, as you well know, shows George what life would be like if he were never born.
In the classic alternate reality sequence, Bedford Falls is no longer Bedford Falls but “Pottersville”. Mary is not married to George with a large family doing community service, but she’s an old maid librarian wearing glasses and scared to look anyone in the eye. Bert the cop opens fire in the middle of the streets on unarmed men, and Ernie the cab driver– well, he’s just sad.
Pottersville is no Christian place. George Bailey, like the mythological Jesus Christ, sacrificed himself to make the world a better place. Pottersville’s got hot women, it’s got jazz for Christ’s sake. Gambling and commerce, commerce, commerce.
Frank Capra, who cut his teeth making propaganda films for the U.S. government during World War Two, seems to be taking his marching orders from the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost while making It’s a Wonderful Life, and that is the main reason that I’ve always been a bit conflicted by my emotional reaction and attachment to this film. It occurs to me now, however, that given the current political climate the film can be viewed the Glenn Beck crowd as a piece of Socialist propaganda. It is for this reason that I am happy to recommend it.
The institution that saves the town, The Bailey Building and Loan, was made possible by post Depression legislation that limited the power of the types of Monopolies Mr. Potter’s bank sought. I can just see Sarah Palin and her Tea Party compatriots getting all tangled in their rosary beads: George Bailey was a socialist commie bastard?
It is not just Sarah Palin. The FBI had their worries. A 1947 FBI memo considered the anti-consumerist message of the film a piece of Communist propaganda:
“With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.
In addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [redacted] related that if he made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiner in connection with making loans. Further, [redacted] stated that the scene wouldn’t have “suffered at all” in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [redacted] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and “I would never have done it that way.”
Real life does not have the neat three-act structure of Hollywood films. Is there any way to know for sure if Bedford Falls will actually be better off in the future because of the life of a single person?
Well, according to Wendell Jamiesson, writing in the New York Times, economically speaking, it is Pottersville, not Bedford Falls, that has a better future in the unfolding American Century.
“Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Wonderful Life” manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly.
On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving. I checked my theory with the oft-quoted Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University, and he agreed, pointing out that, of all the upstate counties, the only one that has seen growth in recent years has been Saratoga.
“The reason is that it is a resort, and it has built an economy around that,” he said. “Meanwhile the great industrial cities have declined terrifically. Look at Connecticut: where is the growth? It’s in casinos; they are constantly expanding.”
“We ease up on our lot of cultural behaviors in a depression,” he said.
What a grim thought: Had George Bailey never been born, the people in his town might very well be better off today.”
The manufacturing lifestyle that George Bailey fights for and ushers into Bedford Falls in upstate New York has suffered since the making of the film. The only community actually to see growth: Saratoga, a town built around tourism not manufacturing. In other words, according to this article in The New York Times, the thesis of It’s a Wonderful Life as we look at the world through the prism of the current economic crisis is incorrect. Bedford Falls would have been better off if George Bailey had never been born.
Maybe I’m getting old and maybe I’m getting soft, but here’s where this atheist finds himself sticking up for the Christian propaganda love fest that is the film It’s a Wonderful Life, because defining success as growth dooms us to a life on the rat wheel. Therefore we can’t grow in perpetuity. It’s true for the economy, the population, for everything.
Science shows us that we weren’t created in the Garden of Eden; we were created from the Big Bang, and from that incredible heat, we know in our bones all things turn to cold.
Love fades, youth wrinkles, stars extinguish.
If this Christmas holiday means anything to me (and it does), it’s the celebration of the human will to carry on despite this knowledge, to bring in the Pagan tradition of light and warmth into the darkness and cold of winter.
Now I can add to the list of things making me enjoy that light and warmth the hope that many of you will view America’s favorite holiday movie is as a piece of socialist propaganda. That George Bailey, a banker, may have evolved less along the lines of Gordon Gecko and more along the lines of Bernie Sanders.
-Dennis Trainor, Jr.