Dollars and Sense in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Image from Wikipedia.org

Saturday night, Wayne and I finally had a minute to settle down, and we chose to spend it curled up with the “kittehs in teh city” to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Wayne had seen it in bits and pieces but never from start to finish, which meant that he, for all intents and purposes, was really watching it for the first time. I, on the other hand, well-versed in all things Christmas and cinematic, was doing so for roughly the thirty-bijillionth time.

For those of you who don’t know my family, we heavily pepper our conversations with movie quotes. In one sitting, we might lob lines from Ghostbusters, The King and I, El Dorado, The Princess Bride, The Usual Suspects, White Christmas, Flaming Star, Major League, and Jaws back and forth so rapidly that those who don’t watch what the variety of films we do might think we’re speaking in a foreign language. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m an auditory learner who absorbs knowledge via listening and discussion (a big plus for me in college!) who can remember most of a movie’s dialogue after two or three viewings.

Image from IFC.com

Okay, back to It’s a Wonderful Life. I probably watch it three or four times every Christmas season, which makes for at least one hundred viewings. Each time, a bell rings and an angel gets some wings, George offers to lasso the moon, people jump in a swimming pool because it’s there, George is thwarted each and every time he tries to escape Bedford Falls, and George and Mary share that awesome kiss over the telephone. However, for the first time, I finally noticed that this classic feel-good film actually contains some fascinating socioeconomic and cultural elements.

Perhaps it’s the continued presence of the Occupy Wall Street protestors in the news or my own changing political outlook that caused me to take note of George Bailey and Mr. Potter as more than allegorical devices. I may never know. However, I though it interesting enough to point out a few key scenes for consideration.

Scene #1–“Peter Bailey was not a businessman”

This is the scene in which George Bailey stands up for his father’s ideals and makes a statement for the working class, thus losing his chance to go to college and forever dooming himself to a life doing the exact thing he feared–counting his pennies and stretching every one until Lincoln screamed for mercy.

Image from mymerrychristmas.com

Potter represents the faceless institution, the bank that loans money based on a person’s value on paper and the rate of return they’re bound to generate. It’s so easy to hate him as he sits in his Attila the Hun wheelchair in a stern black hat with glasses perched, hawk-like, on his nose. He is the epitome of every man or woman whoever denied a loan or hit us with an extra transaction fee we really preferred not to pay. His stance is, “If we just loan money out, people will come to expect it and not work for or value the things they have.” And everyone, on cue, is supposed to say, “That evil, maniacal bastard! How dare he say that about Ernie the taxicab driver! Why that’s the same fella who picked George up when his father had had a stroke, the nice guy who will serenade George and Mary on their impromptu honeymoon!” (Yes, all the exclamation points are necessary. Righteous indignation and all that.)

You (and George) say that because we know Ernie. Potter doesn’t; to him, he’s a social security number and a credit score. George then gives the great counterargument that the rabble he’s talking about “do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community” and that it isn’t “too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath.” They’re better citizens because they have something to be proud of, something they’re working to own while they’re enjoying it. Treat a human being like a human being, and he’ll respond as such. It’s a noble argument to be sure, one that I think held water in the 1940s when this film was released.

I don’t know if any of you have grandparents and parents like mine; they hate buying things on credit and/or taking charity. “What we get, we earn,” my dad used to say when I was a kid. “If you can’t afford it, you don’t need it.” That was bred into them as children, and they in turn bred it into me. (By the way, I’m still not thrifty enough by their standards. I’m like a goldfish and enjoy owning and staring at shiny things too much.)

This made me think of the Fannie Mae/Freddy Mac debacle of the last few years, the idea that everyone “deserves” a house. I loathe, and I mean loathe, the word “deserve.” There’s an feeling of entitlement to it that just galls me. Do you want a roof over your head? Very well. Choose one within your means, save up some for a down payment, and then go get that loan for the rest. Work, pay it off, take care of it. It’s yours, and you’re earning it. However, the incredible interest only loans and relaxed loan standards helped to create this horrid economic pit of despair we’re in now. (See! Movie reference! I can’t help it!) The difference between the people of Bedford Falls, each of which George Bailey knows personally and who work hard for their lifestyles, and folks today is the decline of individual work ethic/responsibility as well as the structure of our communities.

Image from rickischults.wordpress.com

It’s easy to blame Potter and call him all sorts of rude names in the simplistic snow globe that is this film and try to transpose the same feelings onto bankers in real life, but that doesn’t wash. They’re businesspeople who are responsible to other, bigger businesspeople for their own livelihoods and mortgage payments. They don’t know each person they loan money to–they can’t. They sometimes have to say no because a person doesn’t look to be good investment in order to protect the money for those people who are. Those who are currently protesting via Occupy Wall Street fail to realize this simple fact; money can’t simply be flung around. It must be created, grown, invested, protected, and used wisely if it is to maintain its value in our culture. We can’t simply give it away and make people who have more of it “pay their fair share” to those who generate nothing and add nothing to the overall economic pot. It really doesn’t grow on trees.

It’s easy to hate those who have more than we do, to envy them and their wealth. They become as faceless to us as we do to them. They’re not all evil, and the “people on the pavement” (as Edwin Arlington Robinson called us) aren’t all innocent victims of circumstance. The truth is never as simple, as black and white you might say, as a film would have us believe.

Scene #2–“We can get through this thing all right”

This is a pretty humbling scene, the stock market crash on the level of the everyman. Many a person likely took advantage of their fellow man as Potter did, offering substantially less for something than it was worth but offering a chance at relative security in a totally insecure time. George, ever the altruistic creature, puts his own money up, loaning it to tide folks over until the situation settles–something unheard of in today’s world.

Image from beaufortcountynow.com

The interesting dichotomy here is the amounts people are requesting. The one gentleman isinsistent on getting his $242 or whatever it is while others are willing to live on less than $20. The money they’re borrowing is from George’s honeymoon (and I’m guessing housekeeping setup) fund. They have $2,000 in their pockets while other folks’ entire accounts are a tenth of that. It demonstrates the wealth of the average client in the Building and Loan compared to that of Potter’s bank. (Look at the difference in the two offices and the set decoration if you need another stunning example. I love how directors can use scenery to tell the tale as well as the actors can.) George is by no means poor, but he’s nowhere near as wealthy as Potter. And the people he’s trying to help are so far down the socioeconomic ladder that they are beyond the old man’s notice.

I like the sense of community that is established in this scene as well as the miniature economics lesson that George gives the hoi polloi. He’s right; banks don’t just sit there full of money. Our money, which is insured by entities like the FDIC, is used to make loans, to generate even more wealth that should be put back into the institution. It should work that way, but the bigger the bank (and the more foolish the loans they make), the less likely this is to work out. However, any community is only as good as the sum of its parts. The only reason a place like the Building and Loan works is because people continue to pay their debts on time and in full. Allowances can be made from time to time, but not for everyone and not constantly. Otherwise, the entire house of cards collapses in on itself. It all comes back to the point I made before….individual responsibility is what provides for prosperity, not an institution or a government. If each person takes care of him/herself it becomes possible for them all to also look out for one another. We should be doing the same right now rather than make brainless and unreasonable demands on our government (which stands even less of a chance of doing something well than a large bank does).

Scene #3–“You’re worth more dead than alive”

This is a hard scene to watch, George grovelling in that tiny chair looking up at the blackhearted man who only means to cast him out in the snow to ruin and destruction rather than help him. Normally very well put together, George looks disheveled here–hair unkempt, suit rumpled, hands roaming aimlessly in hopes of finding an answer (or the illusive $8,000) in one of his coat’s many pockets. In short, he looks much more like the people who have come to rely on him than ever before and is treated as such by Potter who wastes no time in heaping derision on his head.

The most interesting aspect of this scene is the quip about going to the riff-raff for help. If you watch this film looking at  ancillary characters, it gets rather interesting. There are African Americans in this film, most notably the woman named Annie who worked for the Bailey family, as well as immigrants like Mr. Martini–the literal embodiment of the American dream. Black or white, rich or poor, male or female–all walks of life are represented in the final scene of the film, pulling money from pockets, jars, piggy banks, and even sending it in via telegram. Even the people there to arrest George get caught up in the general good will of the moment, donate money, and sing along with the townsfolk!

On the contrary, every time you see Potter, everyone around him is very well-heeled and stoic as well as very male and very white. Me thinketh Frank Capra was making a political statement with this fact as race and creed are never mentioned in this film. After all, George is the shining example of WASPhood (that’s White Anglo Saxon Protestant), but he values the company of someone like Mr. Martini over that of Sam “Hee Haw” Wainwright and even (albeit sarcastically) offers Annie a chair at the dinner table when he and his father are talking. This group embodies the principle of Matthew 22:34-40:

But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And He said to him, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.’

For a film first released in 1946, I think It’s a Wonderful Life contains an interesting outlook on both social and economic issues. Like them, we should be prepared to live within our means and to make the most of what we earn. Like them, we should be concerned about and care for one another, but it should be done on a community level rather than by a ponderous and hopelessly inefficient government. When we can do these things and live according to the commandments Christ gave us, only then will we all have both dollars and sense.

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2 thoughts on “Dollars and Sense in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

    1. I was hoping that would come across. I hate that people are hurting and struggling to make ends meet, but prosperity is something an individual is responsible for. The church was the original source of charity, and the deacons were the men and women who saw that those who needed it received it. People can be generous and thrifty; a government (sadly) cannot. I know our economic situation is the fault of many, but a combined effort on the part of people can fix it. The problem is that so many are unwilling to lend a hand. Sad….

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