Movie Review: It’s a Wonderful Life

Not just a Yuletide feel good movie __ 10/10

It's a Wonderful LifeGeorge Bailey: Just a minute… just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anyone else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was… why, in the 25 years since he and his brother, Uncle Billy, started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry away to college, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter, and what’s wrong with that?

George Bailey quote continued: Why… here, you’re all businessmen here. Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You… you said… what’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they… Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent 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, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!

Directed by Frank Capra
Screenplay Frances Goodrich

James Stewart … George Bailey
Donna Reed … Mary Hatch
Lionel Barrymore … Henry F. Potter
Thomas Mitchell … Uncle Billy Bailey
Henry Travers … Clarence
Beulah Bondi … Ma Bailey
Frank Faylen … Ernie Bishop
Ward Bond … Bert
Gloria Grahame … Violet Bick

The quote totally expresses the theme of It’s a Wonderful Life—the overriding importance of human beings in the economic picture. You can add to that theme the individual importance of men like George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) whose dreams have been subordinated out of consideration for others. But is the George Bailey decision to forgo his dreams of private adventure truly altruism in the negative Randian sense, where the ideal is held to sacrifice yourself and your values to the worst of those around you? Answer: I think the signals are mixed, the meaning is a bit uncertain. But it’s a fascinating question that I’ll return to.

This is a 10-star movie—IMDb gives it a whopping 8.7 rating—, truthfully, and it’s actually a movie about ideas in rather a subtle fashion. The audience is drawn into the story of George Bailey growing up in a small New York town, Bedford Falls. He’s all full of enthusiasm and idealism, primarily to launch into life by traveling the world and having unbelievable adventures—away from this small-town world, where nothing happens, and even less is of any interest to him—followed by returning to America and being a wildly successful inventor and industrialist. George even anticipates our modern-day (still government-thwarted) industrial hemp potential with an idea for making plastic out of soy beans.

Aside from these qualities of individualistic ambition George is a fairly normal kid, albeit an especially good-natured and even heroic one, with the highest of moral standards. As a boy he saves his brother from drowning, which causes deafness in one ear. As a high-schooler, he discovers and stops an accident that his boss’s inattention at the store might have led to serious harm to someone. But the main body of work for young George is to lead the building and loan business George’s father has painstakingly developed through the years, helping community residents to buy homes and keep up their property… furnish a way for families to grow and become established productive citizens in a healthy society.

What’s remarkable from an economics perspective is the entity offering home loans in the town is not a bank, it is a lending institution, which indeed deposits money in the bank. But people are under no illusions that the money they hold in Bailey’s Building and Loan is stored 100% by the B&L (it’s used for making other mortgages and loans). You see that the bank is the institution that supposedly provides the store of value. [Although, if the bank is part of the Federal Reserve System, then it, too, loans out more than it stores. What I’m remarking on is that the home loan business was actually separate from the banking business, yet functioned sort of as we think of banks today.]

Movie covers the 1920s through the post WWII years, and in between, the Great Depression hits. What also makes It’s a Wonderful Life exceptional is its insight into what was happening in local communities thanks to greater central power coming from the government-corporate Cartel. In those situations, what kind of man stands to gain? The man who is the sleaziest grubber, which in the case of Bedford Falls is one Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). He’s mastered the art of secretly siphoning other people’s money into his hands, using the counterfeiting power of the Fed to get his share of the new money power first. Which, unlike Bailey, Potter uses to extract even more from the common people such a slick system impoverishes… and in return leave them in his deteriorating rented hovels.

There’s an interesting scene where Potter tells his secretary to inform a US Congressman to wait. Potter is the perfect local example of the robber baron and feudal capitalist in love with power and control, a glorified thief sanctioned by the state and the PTB (powers that be).

Enough about that side of it. What I find in Wonderful Life here and with some of the other books and movies—say in the Steinbeck oeuvre—that at one time under the Randian sway I might have considered thinly disguised collectivism, is instead these works are champions of community… of human beings vs. the corporate feeder-opportunists of state coercion. And that’s a subject for a lot of discussion, particularly how the media and mind control apparatus would surely have encouraged moral thinkers to consider the George Baileys and the Tom Joads of the world as bad guys. While the true bad guys walk off with the cookie jar.

So on the issue of altruism that I posed above, does George by accepting the situation of his father’s passing and the need to take over to prevail against the Henry Potter types—Potter is not only morally disfigured, he, in Dick Tracy style, is physically marred as well—do the right thing? At the same time, George realizes he’s in love with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) and makes the decision to marry and raise a family in the community. Is that selfless? Obviously not, family is just something he hadn’t thought much about; he clearly wants such a wonderful woman and wants to have a family. I think what it really is is recognition of responsibility, seeing that he cannot shirk his lot in life.

Accept what comes to you woven in the fabric of your destiny, for what could more aptly suit your needs. — Marcus Aurelius

The famous part of the movie is where George runs into a financial crisis, that leads to him to questioning his choices, that leads to him questioning his value. That and the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) who endeavors to unravel some of these issues for George. Against a snowy Christmas-time backdrop, which is perhaps why we associate Wonderful Life with Christmas. A lot of humor and entertainment value in the denouement, just as in the remainder of the film. Possibly the quintessential American morality play, and I can’t say enough about the acting.


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