George Bailey (James Stewart) spent his life giving to The People of Bedford Falls. Overwhelmed by his family business, community responsibilities and life expectations, he feels rooted to a company he had no interest in working for, living a life he never wanted to begin with. As George morphs into a middle-aged man, he sees his life passing him by. Told from the perspective of some angels, he’s met by his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who shows George what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.
Most people I know who watch this film every year love it for its warmth, and Victorian themes, what today we’d now call family values. Something that fits Christmas so well. However, my affinity to it is for it’s social commentary. For a Christmas film, it’s quite depressing – which is a contrary opinion to the many that have it as part of their annual traditions.
Released in 1946, Frank Capra’s Christmas cracker dropped right as America left one of the most difficult fifteen years (and a bit) of its history, from the Great Depression in 1929 up to the end of the Second World War in 1945. George Bailey is part of “The Greatest Generation,” the millions that came of age during the Wall Street Crash which ushered in the Depression of the 1930s. The undertones of this film, to me, are in that ruthless Wall Street capitalism via characters like Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore).
Yet, the character of Mr Potter is a reminder for many people of what happened in 1929. Between The Crash and the end of The Second World War sat FDR’s New Deal. Within this time, we had The Banking Act of 1933, which is relevant to the characters of Frank Capra’s film, and the bank run. Whilst Capra’s film was released in 1946, Potter is a reminder of how it used to be before Roosevelt and the Democrats ushered through the New Deal.
Once, communism could have been called anti-greed, anti-corporations, anti-fat-businessmen-with-a-cigar-in-their-mouth-getting-rich off-poor-people-in-slums. It’s a Wonderful Life is a voice for the working classes. It’s the I, Daniel Blake of its time, a stark indictment of a system that eats people below the poverty line for dinner. It comments on class and family values, but also austerity in America. In its time, FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover donned it, (what was the buzz term of the post-war years), “anti-American.”
Watching this film, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with modern Britain, in its themes of class and austerity that laid the backbone for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Manifesto. This is a film that cares about people, the individual working people of America – where the American Dream is just that. A dream. Echoing the thoughts of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Slumlord Potter (Barrymore) describes the poor as “A thrifty working class,” which shows you the measure of the man.
In wake of the recent General Election, I will watch this film once more at Christmas for its straight-at-the-jugular representation of working-class communities. Britain has voted for five more years of austerity (oppression), more likely another decade under the Conservatives. It’s a Wonderful Life shows what happens when the powerful do not care about powerless. But isn’t that how they became powerful in the first place?
For families around the world, watching this film is a yearly tradition. But as long as the powerful step on the powerless, this film’s legacy will endure. Institutional violence plods on. Bailey runs a business that helps poor people onto the property ladder. Played to perfection by James Stewart (Mr Smith Goes to Washington), this is a man who cares what happens to those around him. Potter is out for Bailey, wanting the company to close so he can swoop in, and coerce more residents into living in his slum-level housing.
Potter is a metaphor for power, the controlling state that denies people dignity in their own home. Call him Potter, or Boris, or Trump… every era has their tyrants who stop others from thriving, just because they can.
And as long as man is man, history is the last place he will look for his lessons, as history is written by the victors.