One of Christmas’s perennial favourites is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. What apparently makes this a classic is its underlying theme that one’s life, however ordinary influences many others like the ripples in pond.
While this might be a truism it does not in my mind make this a great film. In fact, I would describe “It’s a Wonderful Life” as homage to the dominant philosophy of our time, that of altruism and certainly not a great piece of cinema.
George Bailey is the protagonist. An ambitious young man with dreams of seeing the world, going to college and becoming an industrial engineer or architect. He has planned out his whole life and can hardly wait for the day to leave his “crummy little town” of Bedford Falls.
George’s personal flaw, instilled in him by his father, who by everyone’s account is a poor businessman as the Chief Executive of Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, is both a sense of duty to others in his community and a personal hatred for the successful banker Mr. Potter.
Mr. Potter has a hard nose for business with little empathy for others. It is this lack of altruism that riles the Bailey’s to the point where there hatred of Potter has made for very poor business decisions, giving loans to people the bank declines, which leaves the Building and Loan in a perpetual state of near bankruptcy.
George’s personal dreams are put on hold when his father dies and he ties up fathers’ dealings with the Building and Loan. Potter, a member of the Board makes a motion to dissolve the company but George’s hatred for Potter gets the better of him and he persuades the Board to keep the business. They do so, but with the condition that George stays to run it.
George’s sense of duty to the down-trodden of the community and his personal hatred for Potter convince him to sacrifice (and I mean this in the strictest definition of the term) his life-long dreams and run the Building and Loan. He marries Mary, they have four kids, and throughout the years the embittered man constantly regrets his decision to forsake his personal dreams.
Along comes the great depression and the Company narrowly escapes bankruptcy. Potter tries to give George a way to escape his failing business by offering him a job at $20,000 a year. This would solve many of George’s problems but once again his personal loathing for the banker causes him to refuse the offer with an onslaught of vitriolic, vulgar epithets hurled at his nemesis, Mr. Potter.
His deep-seated rage finally boils over when his absent-minded uncle loses the Companies deposit of $8,000. With Mr. Potter and the Bank Examiner breathing down George’s neck he finally loses it. He ruffs up his uncle, trashes his living room, frightens and yells at his wife and kids, tells off one of his child’s teacher, gets drunk, and drives his car (while drunk) into a tree.
So far I have described the first hour and fifty minutes of this two hour and ten minute movie. Up until this point George Bailey has undoubtedly hated his life. It has been one disappointment after the other. He never wanted to get married and yet he did. He never wanted anything to do with his father’s company and yet he now runs it. He never wanted to live in Bedford Falls but he has never left it. None of his dreams have been fulfilled. It has not been a wonderful life for George Bailey.
If you ask any who have seen the film this first part is often forgotten. The last twenty minutes are what seem to matter to most viewers.
George’s guardian angel, Clarence, saves George from committing suicide in the most insightful way. Knowing of George’s sense of duty to others, Clarence throws himself into the river first, thereby forcing George to save him, and thus himself. So, even George’s desire to kill himself has been sacrificed for the sake of a perfect stranger.
While drying off from his dip in the river George tells Clarence that he wishes he was never born. That’s how wonderful he thinks his life is. Clarence grants his wish and shows George a Bedford Falls where he had never been born. It is a town now called Potterville with nightclubs and gambling halls. His wife, Mary becomes a spinster librarian, his taxi driver still lives in Potter’s slums and the Building and Loan closed down.
George becomes unhinged. He tries to drink away his problem in a bar but gets thrown out. He breaks into the house which was supposed to be his home. He punches a cop and gets shot at. In utter despair he returns to the river where he was going to commit suicide and prays to God to return him to his real life.
His wish is granted and he finds himself surrounded by his friends who bail him out of his financial troubles. The guardian angel leaves him a note saying “No man is a failure who has friends;” A nice sentiment to be sure.
The character of George Bailey is today’s everyman. He believes his highest virtue is not himself but in helping others, while at the same time denigrating and hating the successful among us who do not share his ethic of self-sacrifice.
The end result of his philosophy is a life not worth living, a life of regret, disappointment, frustration, guilt and a mounting hatred for success. At one point in the story George is deliriously overjoyed that he has just given away his life’s saving of $2,000 which was to go towards his honeymoon.
It is fitting, if not timely, that the villain in the story is Mr. Potter the banker, paralleling today’s Occupy Wall Street altruists who call for an end to capitalism, the destruction of the rich and the imprisonment of bankers.
Ayn Rand described the moral code of altruism thusly:
“The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.”
This describes the motives of George Baily perfectly.
I’ll paraphrase Rand when I say that;
- George Baily lacks self-esteem – since his first concern in the realm of values is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it.
- He lacks respect for others – since he regards mankind as a herd of doomed beggars crying for someone’s help.
- He has a nightmare view of existence – since he believes that men are trapped in a “malevolent universe” where disasters are the constant and primary concern of their lives.
The movie is reminiscent of another Christmas favourite, “Scrooge,” based on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Scrooge is portrayed as a banker, or money lender. The casting of successful, rich, corporate executives as heartless, selfish, unsympathetic villains has become commonplace in popular literature and film. The latest Disney movie, “The Muppets” has as its antagonist, oil magnate Tex Richman. His name says it all.
The real villain in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is not Mr. Potter. It is George Bailey, a man who lives for others, forsaking his own selfish desires, plans, and hopes; a man of duty to the community; a man of altruism and sacrifice. These are the attributes of a man who finds his own life distasteful. So much so that suicide is his only escape.
Allow me to take some license to propose an alternative to Capra’s “It’s a wonderful Life.” Let’s suppose we look at George’s life if had followed his dreams and left to explore the world, go to college and build bridges and airports. What would have happened? Could he have impacted as many lives as he did as the Executive Secretary of Bailey Bros. Building and Loan?
I’m reminded of Frederick Bastiat’s piece written in 1850 called The Broken Window, or “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.” Don’t just see what would happen if George Bailey never lived but see what he would have accomplished if he followed his dream.
I suspect he would have influenced more lives in his travels, his adventures, his education and vocation as an architect or industrial engineer than as a lowly officer of a loan company in the dead-end town of Bedford Falls.
But that is not the point. It is not as important how many lives you affect, what is important is how you live your own life, whether or not you follow your own dreams and desires. You have but one life to live. Cultivate friends of course, but not at the expense of fulfilling your own dreams and following your own path.
I don’t know if that would have made for a better movie to have Clarence show us an alternative world where George lived his life with his own self as the standard of his morality, but it certainly would have been a more honest treatment of the evil and morally destructive philosophy of altruism, and a much more uplifting film to view whether at Christmas time or at any time of the year.