I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Must be north of 40 anyway. Yet it has a way of hitting closer to home with passing year.
The movie’s battle of wills between public-spirited George Bailey and greedy Mr. Potter has always symbolized conspicuous social and economic tensions between America’s privileged rich and struggling working class. But with the gap between the rich and the rest widening and the country’s middle class losing ground, and with hate on the rise and the nation’s political system so thoroughly corrupted, the classic storyline of one man’s absence causing idyllic Bedford Falls to transform into the nightmarish Pottersville resonates more strongly than ever. America feels more and more like Pottersville.
Mr. Potter’s consuming greed has abundant real-life parallels. The depiction of the common good giving way to cold, self-centered individualism has a ring of familiarity to it, too. The powerful forces Capra put up on the big screen for public inspection are stronger and more dangerous now than they were in his time.
It’s hard to see It’s a Wonderful Life as anything but an indictment of warped values putting commercialism above community. Those values are so much more deeply embedded in today’s America than they were in Capra’s day and age.
The film’s depiction of government and politics is ambiguous. The story plays out against a backdrop of the nation and its federal government winning World War II, an accomplishment Capra of course treats with pride and respect. But then there’s that scene where Mr. Potter is fuming about how George Bailey’s business practices are besting his own. His secretary interrupts to remind him of an appointment with a congressman, and he angrily says “tell the congressman to wait.” Capra’s viewpoint is unmistakable: The richest man in town has more access to and control over his elected representative that others in the community have. Conditions in this regard are much worse now. Compared to 1946, government is far less trusted and is seen as far more corrupt in today’s America.
There is plenty in Capra’s vision of Bedford Falls and Pottersville to make both liberals and conservatives squirm. The movie’s religious themes are not subtle, despite the fact that George Bailey admits—in a prayer, ironically enough—that he is not a praying man. It’s a Wonderful Life tells a story of divine intervention prompted by the prayers of friends, family and admirers of George’s as he considers taking his own life. Such piety causes indigestion for some modern liberals.
At the same time, Mr. Potter is the film’s villain. He is a vile, soulless money grubber, but is a tame caricature of today’s crony capitalists who have done such violence to small family-owned businesses like the Bailey Building and Loan and who hold such sway over today’s Republican Party. And Mr. Potter’s anti-social self absorption pales in comparison to the trendsetter of modern American conservatism and current inhabitant of the nation’s highest office.
Capra warned the American people in 1946 about what he saw coming. It came. Unless there’s divine intervention, it’s up to us to channel our inner George Bailey and preserve Bedford Falls.