‘Now, if this young man of twenty-eight was a common, ordinary yokel, I’d say he was doing fine. But George Bailey is not a common, ordinary yokel. He is an intelligent, smart, ambitious, young man who hates his job, who hates the Building and Loan almost as much as I do. A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born.’
Seventy years ago this Christmas, the world first learned how much worse things would have been without the existence of George Bailey. Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, was a lyrically corny tribute to the virtue of small-town USA and the wonderful, good-hearted patriotic small town folk, like George, who live in it.
Watching the film this bleak Christmas season, though, it’s difficult to enter fully into its spirit of democratic communal celebration. Last month, across the nation, heartland Americans like good old George (Jimmy Stewart) and his loving wife Mary (Donna Reed) joined with wealthy creeps like Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) to give a bigoted authoritarian the nuclear codes. The bustling scene at the end of the film, with cheerful neighbors crowding into George’s front hall to celebrate and wish him well — are those scenes of communal democratic virtue? Or are they scenes from a fascist rally where the participants have just removed for a moment their “Make America Great Again” caps?
The sinister, Twin Peaks-esque darkness beneath the surface of Bedford Falls isn’t just a post-Trump retrospective interpolation. It’s a Wonderful Life has a very conscious current of bitterness and despair running through it. On the surface, of course, George Bailey is depicted as a kind of saint who “always thinks of others,” and is universally beloved. Jimmy Stewart, transcendentally handsome and equally charming, totally makes you believe that women would throw themselves at George Bailey while angels descend from heaven to tell him how awesome he is.
Bailey’s good cheer and easy brilliance has a flip side, though. Talented, dazzling, confident, George wants to get out of Bedford Falls, see the world, do great things. Yet fate keeps thwarting him. His father has a stroke just as George is about to leave town, and he has to take over the family bank. He has to use money set aside for his honeymoon to stave off a bank run. He never gets out of Bedford Falls; he never fulfills his dreams. He lives a normal life, when he could have been extraordinary. As the devious Mr. Potter tells George, speaking with the tongue of Satan:
George is, in short, a victim of relative deprivation. A petty bourgeois bank owner and successful small-scale entrepreneur, he is not poor, but neither is he as rich as that crafty, big banker elite Mr. Potter, who schemes against him. George is galled by his lack of success, and that gall turns to anger, despair, cruelty, and a kind of egotistical fugue.
When his Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses $8,000, and the bank is threatened with ruin, George becomes positively frightening. “Where’s the money, you silly stupid old fool?” he rages. “Where’s that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison! That’s what it means! One of us is going to jail; well, it’s not gonna be me!” Jimmy Stewart storms away, lanky form twisting in anguish, shirt unbuttoned, coat askew, and hurtles himself at his home and family, raging at his wife, breaking furniture, snapping at his little son, “What’s the matter with our car? Isn’t it good enough for you?”
In theory, this is an unusual response to a one-time stress. But when Mary reprimands him, she doesn’t say, “Why are you behaving so horribly?” Instead she demands, with exasperation, “George, why must you torture the children?” — which could apply only to George’s current bad behavior, but which might also mean, “why must you [always] torture the children?” One has to wonder if he’s tormented the children with this kind of tantrum a few times before, or even habitually. George’s anger and violence seem so much more real than the cheerful, idyllic American façade, that the rest of the film feels like a stage set erected over an abyss.
The film’s famous final half hour, in which an angel shows George what the world would be like without him, is supposed to demonstrate what a wonderful person George really is, and redeem him from his paroxysm of resentment. But you could also see the alternate reality sequence as a kind of psychotic break, in which George gets exactly what he wants — a demonstration of his own virtuous awesomeness and a sweeping revenge on those whom he feels diminished him. George’s brother, the war hero, who escaped town, becomes a corpse. George’s wife, who kept him from leaving town and fulfilling his dreams, becomes a timid, spinster librarian caricature who, unconfined to a domestic role, is miserable. She, and everyone, must suffer, so that the film can make George feel better about himself.
It isn’t just individuals who are worse off without George; it is the town itself. George stood up to the malignant Potter. In his absence, lovely homey Bedford Falls becomes callous, alienating Potterville. Horrified, George wanders through a Potterville festooned with ratty bars and dens of iniquity.
One sign of that iniquity is, notably, integration. The first real sign George gets that the world has changed radically for the worse is when he walks into a formerly cozy family bar and sees a black man playing rowdy piano. Black people exist in the “real,” Georgeful world, but they are servants and boosters, not independent individuals performing on their own without a white family to guide them. George, it turns out, was the dam protecting the real America from a flood of ominous jazz.
The obvious analog to Trump in It’s a Wonderful Life is Potter — the “scurvy little spider” bloated with wealth and ego, who wants to put his own name (Potterville! Trumpville!) on everything he owns. Onscreen, George refuses to work with Potter, no matter how much the elite banker offers to pay him.
But offscreen, in 2016, not all Georges were so virtuous. Capra’s film shows a world in which fairly well off white men demand paranoid validation of their own importance, and reject a world in which that importance is undermined by gender or racial progress. George is a bulwark against the corrupt elites; without him, urbanization will ooze in, causing black people to be independent and gender roles to warp, leaving a wake of loose women and spinsters cluttering the streets.
We need George to shore up the American verities, whatever those may be. It’s a wonderful life for white male small bankers, and all those — including quite possibly Mr. Potter — who see themselves in white male small bankers. Or at least, it better be a wonderful life. If it isn’t, there are many George Baileys willing to break America to make it great again.