Would we be better off without It’s A Wonderful Life?
Critics of the 1946 Christmas classic don’t go that far—yet. But their attacks on the Frank Capra-directed, Jimmy Stewart-starring holiday favorite come close, holding its morality dubious and its economics vacuous.
Don’t let these naysayers hurl It’s A Wonderful Life into the cold, ever-churning river of artistic oblivion. Instead, let me play Clarence Oddbody for a moment and argue that this really is a wonderful movie.
It’s A Wonderful Life shows the darkest moment in the life of community-oriented family man George Bailey; an apparent financial slip-up by a work colleague threatens his life with ruin. Realizing his life insurance policy makes him “worth more dead than alive,” he considers suicide to save his family and to escape his seemingly disappointing life. But Clarence Oddbody, his guardian angel, takes him to a world in which he was never born, ultimately dissuading him from suicide. Returning to his life, he receives help from those he had helped earlier. It’s a truly life-affirming message, and one of the best arguments against suicide: Consider all those whom you would leave behind.
One of the more fundamentally flawed nihilistic reinterpretations of the film came recently from Cezary Jan Strusiewicz of Cracked.com. Strusiewicz asks:
What about the rest of the almost six billion people on Earth who’ve never done anything for anyone and consider the time we got an extra piece of chicken in our McNuggets as the high point of our year? Is it OK if we commit suicide if we decide the fate of the entire city doesn’t hinge on our continuing to draw breath?
In short: No. One doesn’t have to be George Bailey to leave behind a gaping hole. Just about every human on Earth is part of some community, however small; every life touches every other life in ways we don’t always appreciate. It’s A Wonderful Life simply reminds us to appreciate them. Nor, contra Strusiewicz, is the film “essentially saying that attempted suicide gives you a little perspective on life.” One need not attempt suicide to live with gratitude and with care for others. Mr. Potter himself couldn’t have gotten it more wrong.
Speaking of Mr. Potter, some say the heartless monopolist is the true hero of It’s A Wonderful Life and that George Bailey’s alternative reality nightmare “Potterville” is actually a dream come true, as Sonny Bunch has argued. But this confuses crass materialism and morality. Though Bunch has only teased at his critique of It’s A Wonderful Life, asserting, “If you set aside all the gooey BS about Jimmy Stewart being a good man it’s a movie about how rapacious capitalism is destroying America,” and suggesting a more honest plot description (“Failed banker imagines wonderful alternate universe that would’ve come to be if he had never been born”), he has not expanded fully upon it. Yet his contrarian take on Back to the Future: Part II—that the Biff Tannen who conquered Hill Valley and refashioned it in his lascivious image using time travel is actually the hero of the movie—is an adequate proxy. For It’s A Wonderful Life depicts the same scenario, with the full realization of Potter’s monopolist desires standing in for Tannen’s time travel-enhanced status. As Bunch considers the Tannen of this alternate 1985 “one of the great job creators of American history” (thanks to casinos and other suspect enterprises, but no matter), one suspects he approves of Potter and Potterville.
Such approval, however, fails to acknowledge that capitalism—which can, at its worst, weaken civil society—isn’t perfect, as even conservative thinkers have admitted. Indeed, the social chaos of both Biff’s Hill Valley and Potter’s Potterville suffice to dispel the homo economicus claptrap that undergirds Bunch’s claim. And what Tannen and Potter practiced resembles crony capitalism far more than pure capitalism anyway: Tannen brags that he “owns the police”; Potter renames Bedford Falls after himself, suggesting political clout beyond the mere market striving he could manage against George Bailey. Such cronyism is antithetical to any legitimate conception of the American dream.
Finally, Bunch’s argument ignores the moral event horizon that both Tannen and Potter cross: Tannen’s killing of a woman’s husband so that he could have her for himself; Potter’s stealing $8,000 from the Baileys after tiring of their persistence in competing with him (the true cause of the aforementioned “apparent financial slip-up”). Both are indefensible evils; Potter’s act, especially, crosses a moral threshold that none of his prior efforts against the Baileys had, rendering him nigh irredeemable.
Still, would we be better off without It’s A Wonderful Life?
Perhaps the reason we’re asking this question more often today is that the world the film depicts is so far removed from our own: It’s a place of “heehaws” and druggists, bank runs and World Wars, small towns and unbroken families. But it airs every Christmas for a reason, and not just because the licensing was cheap. Rather, It’s A Wonderful Life communicates profound, transcendent truths about the value of life, family, and community. If today we find these truths “corny” or “cheesy,” then the fault may lie in us, not the film. So ignore the naysayers: It’s A Wonderful Life is a timeless classic that has more than earned its wings—and another viewing this Christmas.