A strong case can be made that It’s a Wonderful Life is the Great American Movie. It may not be the best American film ever made, but it captures best what Americans most want to believe about themselves. The movie promotes a vision of benign capitalism — that is, capitalism with a heart, working for the common good, an antidote to the ruthless greed of Henry Potter.
In 1946, emerging from the Great Depression, that message must have resonated. But this economic morality tale applies just as much today. So it’s appropriate that Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest — the closest thing we have to the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan Association — should sponsor a showing of It’s a Wonderful Life last Saturday morning across the street at the Lake Theatre. Since the “bank examiners” (there’s one in the movie, too) deprived us of Mike Kelly’s community-minded approach to banking last year, Marty Noll’s is the only local financial institution left. And Community Bank’s position isn’t entirely secure either after the feds fired a shot across their bow recently.
In the film, Frank Capra showed two sides of the American dream, Bedford Falls and Pottersville, its neon nightmare underside.
Bedford Falls, on the other hand, is a Norman Rockwellian utopia, which the main character, George Bailey, doesn’t appreciate because he’s got his eyes locked on his dreams. He tells his dad early on that he doesn’t want to get trapped in a “shabby little office.”
“You know, George,” his father replies, “I feel in a small way, we’re doing something important, satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace. And we’re helping him to get those things in our shabby little office.” Ironically, in recent years, some have actually blamed that yearning for causing the mortgage crisis.
When Peter Bailey dies, his son delays his escape from Bedford Falls long enough to get the firm’s affairs in order. The board thanks him, but before George can depart, Potter jumps the gun, making a motion to dissolve the Building & Loan.
“Peter Bailey was not a businessman,” Potter says. “He was a man of high ideals — so called. But ideals without common sense can ruin this town. … 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 heads with a lot of impossible ideas.”
“You’re right when you say my father was no businessman,” George replies. “But neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character. Why, in the 25 years since he started this thing, he never once thought of himself. … But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? Doesn’t that make them better citizens, better customers? What did you say just a minute ago? They have to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent house? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? … Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000?
“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.
“This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place for people to go without crawling to Potter.”
Central to America’s sense of itself is the myth of rugged individualism, but this film focuses on a quality that’s just as important to who we are — our interconnectedness.
“You’ve been given a great gift, George: the chance to see what the world would be like without you,” says Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class. The film forces its viewers to ask themselves an uncomfortable question: How different would life be if I had never been born? Would it matter?
Clarence provides the answer: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
As the Republicans (with help from some Democrats) pursue their dream of creating the United States of Pottersville, and as the rest of us rush about this holiday season, ignoring our Bedford Falls, we might do well to pause and take the message of It’s a Wonderful Life to heart: If we’re really all in this together, we need to create a more humane economic system — so we don’t all end up having to crawl to Potter.
At any rate, it’s a wonderful dream.