I have no doubt that, among the millions who shed a tear every December for the plight of poor Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” some of them are billionaire hedge-fund managers whose mortgage default swaps left countless people without a roof over their heads. There’s an amazing disconnect between loving a story and not realizing which character you’re playing in your own life. (That’s the joke behind one of my favorite headlines from The Onion: “Affluent White Man Enjoys, Causes the Blues.”)
And so, as “It’s a Wonderful Life” celebrates its 70th anniversary and further cements its place in the culture as our national Christmas movie, I can’t help wonder how many of its fans remain blissfully aware that they are Mr. Potter — or, at least, elected him to the highest office in the land.
There’s a tendency to shrug off Frank Capra’s films as sentimental “Capra-corn,” but what he had to say about the world’s crushing forces remains as timely as ever, whether it’s the back-room political manipulators of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or the billionaire trying to take over a populist movement to promote his own 0.1% agenda in “Meet John Doe.” (The latter, incidentally, is Capra’s other great film in which the hero attempts to commit suicide on Christmas Eve.)
If conservatives embrace “It’s a Wonderful Life,” they no doubt convince themselves that George Bailey and his neighbors help each other rather than running to the government for handouts. But the film celebrates collectivism, as well as the idea that everyone is entitled to basic human dignity, starting with a decent home in which to raise a family, and that such niceties don’t create a society of moochers.
“You’re all businessmen here,” says George Bailey (James Stewart). “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?”
Potter (Lionel Barrymore), meanwhile, refers to the working-class citizens of Bedford Falls as “rabble” and “garlic eaters” (a Breitbart-ian bit of coded racism) and uses his wealth to intimidate politicians and judges while buying up everything in town that he can. In George’s nightmare, we see the results of an unfettered Potter in the nightmarish Pottersville. (A real estate mogul sticking his name on everything, imagine that.)
Somehow, there’s still a library, but beyond that, it’s a town of cheap flash and cheaper thrills, where the citizenry is dead-eyed and doomed, stuck in substandard housing or forced to take in borders. Potter doesn’t care, so long as the money keeps coming in; if fracking had been invented in 1946, he’d probably do that too.
It’s an interesting side note that one of the other stories that Capra was considering before making “It’s a Wonderful Life” was “It Happened on Fifth Avenue,” a comedy about WWII veterans clashing with yet another New York real estate mogul. That film’s celebration of united working people standing up to wealth and power was so left-leaning that one of its screenwriters was actually hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
So if you love “It’s a Wonderful Life,” please take a second and think about the people in your own life. Are you being a helpful George Bailey, giving them a leg up even if it means giving of yourself and your dreams? Or are you Mr. Potter, knocking down everyone in your path and caring only about yourself? We are about to enter America’s Pottersville years, and the world needs more George Baileys.