By Ken Trainor
Many people embrace (or dismiss) It's a Wonderful Life as a candy-coated Norman Rockwell portrait sprung to life. Mostly sentiment, little substance. The ending is so unabashedly upbeat, so unapologetically joyous, it outshines the rest of the film, which is frequently quite dark and contains some of the hardest-hitting dialogue I've ever heard.
It's almost impossible to watch that ending without tears streaming down my face — and I suspect for most viewers, no matter how many times they've seen it.
But the ending doesn't erase the darkness underlying this story — the darkness of economic inequality, a very timely topic in 1947 America, which was just emerging from a two-decade-long Depression, characterized by, and caused by, that inequality.
The film is especially timely today as we struggle with economic hardship five years into what would have been a Depression if we hadn't put a few safeguards in place following the last one.
Economic inequality is a touchy subject for Americans because it contradicts our founding myth — that this is the land of opportunity where all people are created equal. Yet we are as far from making that myth a reality as we have ever been, and the film takes this subject on with real courage. Which is why I consider it the "Great American Film": It captures the gap between what America is and what it aspires to be and also offers the cure. Viewers who think this is just a sweet, fluffy, comfort-food Christmas movie are missing the point.
The film celebrates not only the value of an individual life ("Strange, isn't it?" Clarence says. "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"), but also the power of community collaboration (which results from each man's life touching so many other lives).
The only "rugged individualist" in the film, Henry F. Potter, a card-carrying member of the 1 percent, despises everyone he considers beneath him and everything he can't control.
George Bailey has his number:
"Just remember, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of 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."
Potter, however, also has George's number:
"George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel," he tells his adversary later. "He's an intelligent, ambitious young man who hates his job, who hates the Building & Loan almost as much as I do. A young man who's been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born. A young man — the smartest one in the bunch, mind you — who has to sit by and watch his friends go places because he's trapped. Yes sir, trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic-eaters. Do I paint a correct picture or do I exaggerate?"
George doesn't contest the description. Like I said, dark.
George does hate his life, and when $8,000 goes missing, it puts him, as he says in a whispered prayer, "at the end of my rope." This modern saint is ready and willing to commit suicide. Divine intervention brings him to his senses, but it is his social network, the collective taking up a collection, that comes to his rescue.
George Bailey's struggle will go on — as it does for all of us trying to make sense of, and find meaning in, our individual lives.
But America itself has not fared so well. From 1947 to 1980, the economic inequality divide in this country closed to its narrowest point. From 1980 to the present, inequality has grown wider than it's ever been.
The underlying message of Wonderful Life, in other words, still applies: Without a strong, tightly-knit sense of community, the individual is in peril.
It has not been fashionable for the past three and a half decades to talk about economic inequality, although many have tried. It was considered heretical to the Gospel of the Miraculous Free Market. Thanks partly to Pope Francis' recent critique of "trickle-down economics," it is now possible to discuss the topic without being summarily dismissed by the true believers of Pottersville.
And that opens up It's a Wonderful Life in a new way to modern audiences. This is a film that challenges as much as it inspires. "America" comprises two strains — individualism and collectivism. When the two are in balance, the nation is healthy. When one dominates, we get into trouble. For the last 35 years, we have suffered from excessive individualism. Compassion fatigue. Mercifully, our mindset is starting to change at last.
Oak Park, I happen to think, is closer to Bedford Falls than just about any place in this country. But that shouldn't make us complacent.
No one is saying this country will ever achieve complete equality. There will probably always be a gap. But it should be narrowing, not widening. The pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of equality go hand in hand. They are inseparable.
George Bailey did have a wonderful life, as the film defines "wonderful" — he had a positive impact on the world around him. In spite of his long imprisonment, or maybe because of it, so did Nelson Mandela. So do we all, but only to the extent that we are grounded in community, so long as we are touching other's lives.
Or as Clarence Oddbody, Angel First Class, puts it: "No man is a failure who has friends."