How many Americans over the age of 12 are there who can’t identify the origin of that phrase?
The naturalization division of the Immigration and Naturalization Service should require every new applicant to see It’s a Wonderful Life on DVD, with the soundtrack in his native language. He would not be granted citizenship until he could pass a test, in English, about the movie. No one should be granted American citizenship who does not have a good understanding of the United States Constitution and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Why is that movie so important? There are a lot of reasons. Here is a short list:
- Because the owner forgot to renew its copyright in 1974, television stations could show it for free. Anyone could reproduce it on videotape without paying a royalty. The movie did not become a Christmas tradition until copyright lapsed. (There is now a dispute over the copyright of the movie’s music, which is why NBC is the only network to show it these days. Until this is resolved, the movie’s universality has been compromised.)
- Its themes are fundamental to the American character: good vs. evil, David vs. Goliath, money won’t buy happiness, personal salvation through good works, and neglected by most reviewers one of the most powerful themes in American history and uniquely American: national redemption by home ownership through mortgages.
- Angelology. In America, theology is considered divisive; so, God is rarely a topic in mixed company. But everyone seems to have an opinion on angels. There are two main denominations: Cary Grant’s (The Bishop’s Wife), aimed at suave Episcopalian types, and the Clarence-ites all the rest of us. There is also a growing Della Reese sect, but I do not attend her services, so I will not comment. The Denzel Washington sect (The Preacher’s Wife) never really caught on. He was too bland, I think. But Clarence’s is by far the largest and most dedicated denomination. The name of the actor who played Clarence is a matter for advanced trivia contests, and he is remembered only for this role.
WHAT DIFFERENCE HAVE I MADE?
A review by James Berardinelli is a good introduction to the movie.
What is it about this film, an uplifting, sentimental fable about the importance of the individual, that strikes a responsive chord with so many viewers? Some might argue that it has something to do with the season, but I don’t buy that reasoning. It’s a Wonderful Life is just as good in July as in December the time of the year has little to do with motion picture quality. Rather, I think It’s a Wonderful Life has earned its legion of followers because it effectively touches upon one basic truth of life that we all would like to believe that each of us, no matter how apparently insignificant, has the power to make a difference, and that the measure of our humanity has nothing to do with fame or money, but with how we live our life on a day-to-day basis. It’s a Wonderful Life asks and answers a question that all of us think of at one time or another: “What would this world be like if I had never been born?”
He is wrong about the centrality of Christmas. To say that this movie is just as good in July is the equivalent of saying that Christmas carols are just as good in July. Technically, this is correct; aesthetically, it isn’t. The movie is about redemption. It’s a Christmas movie.
It’s a Wonderful Life is 20th-century America’s version of Dickens’ famous short story, one which has the same themes, minus one: redemption by mortgage. Both movies are about redemption by good works, both take place at Christmas, and both are made possible only through an encounter with supernatural visitors. They are stories about secular redemption, achieved because of the most secular of all redemption celebrations: the Christmas season a substitute for the story of Christ.
This subtle secularism receives one brief mention in It’s a Wonderful Life. The narrator presumably God speaks about the end of World War II. Americans who rarely went to church most Americans, we are told (inaccurately) went to church on the following Sunday. It is clear that in Bedford Falls, churches were peripheral. What distinguishes Bedford Falls from Pottersville is not God, faith, and obedience. Rather, it is the Building & Loan Society.
This, I contend, is what makes It’s a Wonderful Life uniquely American. In Anno Domini 2002, we have been told that what has saved the American economy, and hence the world’s economy, from the miseries of a deep recession is the housing market. There is cheap mortgage money available, and Americans are now re-financing their homes. Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac are merely the Bedford Falls Building & Loan Society gone national and federalized through presumed loan guarantees for investors. Odd as it may sound, in this recent real-life remake of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is played by Alan Greenspan. He has received generally favorable reviews.
Potter is the villain. He is a banker. He is the opposite of the Baileys. He loans money, too, but he doesn’t loan money to help them build homes. He loans money so that they can . . . what? In the “world without George” sequence, the town is the essence of evil: taverns and lewd women. Everyone makes a living by selling sin to everyone else, or so it seems. Where the productivity originates, the scene doesn’t indicate. Pottersville is sleazy. It is poor. Everyone presumably lives in rented housing, presumably owned by Potter.
The message: George Bailey made a difference because he helped depositors make loans to each other that were secured by real estate. That was the mode of national redemption in 1946, after a decade of depression and half a decade of war: “Own your own home!” On this theological foundation was built Levittown and the other post-War tracts. Exactly how Bailey did this during the Great Depression, the movie never says.
In the real world, building and loan associations did it because the U.S. government changed the laws under Roosevelt’s Administration regarding fractional reserve banking. There would be no more bank runs. The government would insure against this. It would make safer what fractional reserve bankers had feared most: borrowing short (accepting deposits that were redeemable on demand) and lending long (30-year loans at a fixed rate on real estate).
Then the government inflated the currency, raising interest rates, but also raising people’s dollar-denominated net worth through rising prices on their homes. Lenders then made additional loans based on rising property values: more valuable collateral. And so it goes, even today: the Federal Reserve System’s policy of depreciating the dollar in order to keep home owners happy. Mortgage investors are now locked into investments that will plummet in value if price inflation raises long-term interest rates. The system will either implode in deflation in one long bank run that will not end after one day at 6 p.m., or else the creditors who extended the mortgage loans will see their investments wiped out through mass inflation.
This is why, in a future remake of It’s a Wonderful Life, Alan Greenspan will star as Uncle Billy.
FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS
Another thing: we never think about the crucial character in the movie, without whom the movie would have no plot. Hint: he has no name in the movie, or at least no one remembers it. The actor who played him was never seen again. What role did he play?
The crucial figure is the bank examiner. Throughout the movie, Uncle Billy lives in fear of the arrival of the bank examiner. The bank examiner serves as the agency of final judgment in the story. Without him, only the depositors were a problem, and they were bought off with George’s honeymoon money. The bank examiner was a threat because the Building and Loan was somehow in the red, and not only when Uncle Billy lost the cash. So, when the examiner tosses a dollar onto the pile of money given to George Bailey in the final scene, it became clear: God was on the side of George Bailey. George Bailey had passed through judgment day with flying color: green.
The movie is about forgiveness, and the form it takes is debt forgiveness just like in the Lord’s Prayer. (It doesn’t say “trespasses” in the original Greek. It says “debts.”) Did the depositors forgive the Building & Loan’s debt after only one day? No, but they extended the promised day of judgment. All it took was George’s honeymoon money.
Note: the amount of his honeymoon wad of cash was enough in the depression era to buy a new home without a mortgage, and not just in Bedford Falls. How he earned all that money by working at his father’s Building and Loan in the 1930’s, we are never told. Why a bank run ends after only one day is also left unexplained. We viewers do not even bother to ask. Frank Capra was a great director!
Bailey’s company is in debt. The books will not balance after Uncle Billy loses the money. (Why George or anyone else would trust Uncle Billy with cash is also never explained.) Potter steals the money. He is not just a ruthless capitalist. He is a thief, and his assistant is an accomplice. He can win in his war against Bailey only by breaking the rules.
Why does Bailey keep winning? The movie explains this in terms of the Baileys’ willingness to lend the money of little people to little people, but only good people family men. The Baileys are men of the people. They lend to build homes the bright side of every man’s impulse to accumulate wealth rather than loaning money to the dark side of man, which Potter does, as the no-George sequence reveals.
After the miracle/judgment sequence ends, George rejoices. He sees that his life has made a difference. He runs home, shouting “Merry Christmas” to everyone. The proof of his redemption his self-redemption is when he runs past the bank, looks in the window, sees Potter, and shouts, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!” Potter’s response is consistent: a sarcastic, “And a happy new year to you, too.” It is directed at his assistant, not at Bailey, who has kept running. It verbally confirms him in his evil ways. We do not see him again. The money he stole presumably remains with him. Potter does not fear the bank examiner.
Of course, undergirding both the movie and our willingness to watch it over and over, year after year, is our understanding that there is really a Bank Examiner, and the books will someday be opened. Potter will not get away with it.
But we do not talk about this assumption. We want to believe what the movie teaches, that girls and boys get free presents under the Christmas tree when they are little, and an invading army of grateful people will bring in wads of free money when we really need it.
A lot of Americans believe in miracles. They believe in bank examiners. The divisive question is this one: Is God more like a bank examiner or Santa? On what basis, judicially speaking, do those presents under the tree show up? On our good deeds or on grace? This is the ultimate piece of the puzzle in It’s a Wonderful Life. It is the most subtle piece. We don’t stop to ask ourselves: “Who is narrating the movie? Why should he bother? And why is this movie set during Christmas?" The answer to all three questions is this:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Frank Capra pursued one theme in movie after movie: doing good is always rewarded at the end, no longer how dark it seems until the movie’s final scene. There is a sub-theme: “the system” is out to get the hero because he represents the little guy.
Americans root for the little guy. We are afflicted with what my friend Hans Kraepilin calls “infracaninophilia”: love of the underdog. (Lawrence J. Peter, of Peter Principle fame, reworked this phrase after I told him about it: "hyperaninophobia" hated of the overdog. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
Most of Capra’s movies still hold up. We still watch them: You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Pocketful of Miracles. Less successful was A Hole in the Head (1959), but it was not a bad movie. It Happened One Night (1934) was a classic, and it made Clark Gable. But it was less of a morality play than the others, which is also true of Arsenic and Old Lace.
That’s why I would require immigrants to master It’s a Wonderful Life. It reveals the best of America, and it expresses the hopes of common Americans. It also became a classic film three decades after it was released. Television brought it to a mass audience: the children and grandchildren of the original audience.
The Academy Award for “Best Picture” in 1947 went to The Best Years of Our Lives, not to It’s a Wonderful Life, which had been nominated. “Best Years” had similar themes: the system vs. the little guy, readjustment to post-war life, and the grasping side of bankers. Both of these movies are old fashioned. Both preach hope: the triumph of good in the American economy. Both argue that the little guy can make a big difference. Both argue that greed is destructive. But “Best Years” was darker morally. It is a story about which seductress will win the hero: his floozie wife or the marriage-wrecking all-American girl. It was a Hollywood liberal’s movie.
Frank Capra was no liberal. That’s why his movies survive.
Capra was an immigrant from Sicily. He arrived at the age of six. He loved America. He understood what is good about it. He captured this on-screen better than any other film director ever has. Liberal reviewers are contemptuous of his films for this reason. They regard his themes as simple-minded or patronizing.
It is easy to criticize Capra’s view of how the economy works. His plots often had holes in them larger than George Bailey’s wad of honeymoon cash. But his movies held together, and also have held up over decades, because the holes are covered over by his fundamental theme: individual righteousness wins out in the end. The American system, while open to greedy villains, ultimately rests on ethically solid ground. Nice guys don’t finish last.
A REAL HERO
It is one of those great ironies of history that the consummate business villain in American movie history Potter was played Lionel Barrymore. Potter is in a wheelchair in the movie because Barrymore was in a wheelchair in real life. He had lost the use of his legs because of arthritis. In the earlier Capra film, You Can’t Take It With You (1938), he played the good guy who was fighting the system, opposite Edward Arnold’s villain, a Potter-like character who eventually reforms himself because of Barrymore’s example. In that movie, Barrymore was on crutches and in a leg cast. (Jimmy Stewart was in that movie, too, playing another Capra nice guy, as he did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)
Barrymore’s success as an actor increased as he grew more crippled. He was incredibly talented: artist, composer, author, director, and actor. He did not allow his physical affliction to stop him. His movie career was long: 1909 to 1953. He died in 1954.
His great niece, Drew, also overcame problems, but in her case, self-inflicted: drugs as a teenager. The comeback-kid story is also a favorite in America, especially when it’s true.
I had seen It’s a Wonderful Life enough times to let me skip it this season. I tried. I tried several times. But when the bank run began, I turned it off. It was not honeymoon cash that solved bank runs in America. It was the government’s extension of an insurance subsidy and its implied promise of a fiat-money bailout by the Federal Reserve System. This solution has guaranteed inflation ever since, in order to keep home owners happy and depositors asleep.
But the movie isn’t about fractional reserve banking, any more than it’s about angels getting their wings. It’s about the positive, cumulative, but unseen benefits to many people of individual acts of charity and honesty. It’s also about capitalism: home ownership, small businesses, and sacrificial hard work. That’s why immigrants should be required to take a test on It’s a Wonderful Life.
It wouldn’t hurt to have political candidates take the test, either. I suspect that most of them would flunk.
December 11, 2002