“There are just two things that are important,” director Frank Capra told the LA Times in a 1946 article about his film It’s a Wonderful Life. “One is to strengthen the individual’s belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend toward atheism.”
Initially, it seemed that Capra failed to meet his goals. It’s a Wonderful Life made back only half of its production costs, received mixed reviews from critics, and caught the attention not of the Academy Awards voters but of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who investigated its anti-capitalist message.
That original reception seems backwards to us today. Every Christmas, viewers watch It’s a Wonderful Life for the sake of both the important things Capra identified. The story of forlorn banker George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), dissuaded from suicide when an angel shows him an alternate reality in which he’d never been born, has become a feel-good film about the divinely sanctioned American Dream and a lesson in gratitude.
But between its title and its joyful final few minutes, one finds a very different movie. For most of the film, George is a bitter loser, beaten at every turn by real estate baron Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), forced to run the family Building & Loan bank while his brother sees the world, and stuck in his hometown of Bedford Falls with his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and their four children. By the time the angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) unveils a world without George Bailey, we fully understand his desire to die.
Every couple of years, a new viewer notices these plot points and gains a new appreciation for the movie’s nuanced take on joy and suffering (case in point). But the bleak narrative isn’t the only way Capra’s film differs from its cheery reputation. No matter what the director originally intended, Capra ended up creating a movie that pits the economics of heaven against the economics of savage capitalism, a world where individual identity cannot be extricated from the collective and in which God blesses the dignity of workers and stands against the rich and the proud.
Despite its prominence in the movie’s plot, George’s tour of an alternate Bedford Falls lasts only 15 minutes of the film’s 130-minute run time. The majority of the film is spent tracing the lead-up to George’s suicide attempt, following his journey from a boy with big dreams to a young man ready to make his mark on the world to a husband and father crushed by failure. While family obligations sometimes keep George moored to his hometown, he usually stays to prevent Potter from gaining complete control over Bedford Falls.
A scene set in the Great Depression best illustrates this tension. Driving away from their wedding ceremony with a fistful of cash, George and Mary imagine a globetrotting honeymoon. “We’re gonna shoot the works,” George boasts to his cab driver; “A whole week in New York, a whole week in Bermuda, the highest hotels, the oldest champagne, the richest caviar, the hottest music, and the prettiest wife.” But the revelry fizzles when they spy a crowd forming outside the Bailey Building & Loan. The financial crash has created a panic, and the townspeople want to withdraw their money right away.
George urges calm among his neighbors, reminding them that a mass withdrawal will bankrupt the Building & Loan and that accepting Potter’s offer of .50 cents on the dollar will increase his influence. Mary’s plan to use their newly-acquired nest egg satiates the townspeople and thwarts Potter’s power grab, but it also leaves the couple with only two dollars – hardly enough to see the world.
For some, the bank run scene is a picture of healthy banking and good capitalism. Discussing the film for The Atlantic, Bourree Lam and Gillian B. White praise the movie for its accurate depiction of actual banks, not as a holding place where cash sits in safes, but an institution that invests clients’ money in other projects. They note the film illustrates the downsides of running both good and bad banks, claiming that an ideal bank should be somewhere between a business and a charity, “help[ing] people reach financial goals while also turning a profit.”
But none of the scenes inside the Building & Loan seem particularly concerned with the specifics of banking, nor with turning a profit. George’s explanation of the bank’s workings is less about fiduciary processes and more about the quality of the community. “Well, your money’s in Joe’s house, that’s right next to yours, and the Kennedy house and Mrs. Macklin’s house and 100 others,” he tells the townspeople. He emphasizes their shared experiences by saying, “You’re lending them the money to build and they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can.” George punctuates his words by pointing to the crowd, underscoring their responsibility to one another before asking, “What are you gonna do, foreclose on them?”
The emotional stakes of the moment make the answer clear: no, they shouldn’t. The scene’s celebratory denouement, in which George and the employees dance with the two remaining dollars, isn’t about the Baileys staying in business. They celebrate because the people did the right thing. “We can get through this thing alright,” George tells his neighbors, “we’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”
This focus on humanity over profit marks nearly every scene in which economics enters the plot. The first kiss between George and Mary is not fondly remembered because it happens while a mutual friend lays out grand plans for revolutionizing the plastics trade. It’s the passion between the two and soft-focus embrace that reduces talk of ground floor deals to irritating background clatter. We never see the immigrant Martini family sign contracts for their first mortgage, but the movie does stop for Mary to bring gifts to welcome them into the community.
Film screenwriter John Charles Moffitt may have been correct when he defended It’s a Wonderful Life against an inquiry by the House Un-American Activities Committee, insisting the film cannot be Communist because George Bailey is a banker. But George and his father are ineffective bankers, and the movie loves them for it.
When Potter complains that the Bailey’s approving home loans for low-income people creates “a discontented lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class,” George appeals not to profit margins, but to human dignity. Standing above the old white men sitting around the conference table, George rejects the idea that people should wait and save before owning a home, asking, “Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5000?” Capra cuts to a close-up on Stewart as George makes the most important part of his speech:
Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?
George ends the address by invoking his late father, a fellow business failure, telling Potter, “in my book, he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.” Potter dismisses the criticism, but it’s clear that the film agrees, returning to the line in a toast made during the movie’s rapturous finale: “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
George’s riches come not in the form of the cash that townspeople pour onto his table to pay off his debt and keep him from going to jail, but in the community crowding around him. That position isn’t just a warm fuzzy bromide to cap off what has been a fairly bleak tale; it’s a central part of the movie’s theology. It’s true that It’s a Wonderful Life puts lines like “life is God’s greatest gift” in the mouth of Clarence, whom Travers plays as a doddering buffoon. And it’s also true that George only calls out to God as a desperate act, one that begins, “I’m not a praying man…”
For writer David Wilson, the movie is “moral but not religious,” with religious characters and references that never transcend the “superficial and insubstantial.”
But that reading forgets that the movie portrays God, working through pathetic old Clarence, as far more powerful than George or Potter or anyone else. After all, God stops the world and rewrites reality, all to make a point. Whatever power money may hold over the lives of Bedford Falls, it’s nothing compared to God’s ability to remake the town on a whim. And God uses that ability, not to show George the value of his banking pursuits, but to condemn the capitalist class. Pottersville, as Bedford Falls has been renamed in the alternate reality, is a lucre-driven nightmare befitting its namesake, where ghastly neon-signs pitch products at passers-by and the library, the one remaining non-profit institution, is a veritable mausoleum operated by forgotten spinster Mary.
The film’s portrayal of power prevents us from dismissing Clarence as a lovable fool. When he tells George that he jumped into the river to save him, or when he says it’s ridiculous to kill oneself for money, Clarence isn’t being eccentric. He’s describing reality from the perspective of Heaven. Clarence embodies Paul’s observation that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27).
Moreover, It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t relegate its wonders to the realm of fantasy. It is, as Mary observes, a miracle when the townspeople pool their money to save George; in fact, it’s the answer to the prayers that open the film. But this answer doesn’t come from another magic trick by Clarence. Instead, the prayer is answered by the people who do the working and living in Bedford Falls. They pray to God for help and then they provide the help, embodying God’s will by putting people over money.
Wilson calls It’s a Wonderful Life “the least religious but most humanist film that you could ever see,” a movie about the “here and now” instead of “the comforts of religion and the hereafter.” But the movie sees no distinction between those elements, and rightly so. Following the God who took the form of a human, Christians act in the here and now to save people. The economics of heaven insist that serving one another, that affirming the dignity of human beings is an act of worship to God, and that any economic system that erodes or denies that dignity is inherently profane.
With its images of people forgoing profit to keep humans safe and warm, and scenes of people acting as a collective of care, It’s a Wonderful Life shows us how heavenly economics work here on Earth. The movie inspires us to join in George’s prayer at the end of the alternate universe sequence, begging God to return him to his bodily experience. When George tells God “I want to live,” he’s asking to go back to the real world, with all its toil, because that’s the place where he can do things that have real value: caring for the people in his community.
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Despite his lofty aims, Capra did not succeed in strengthening belief in the individual or in combating atheism. It’s a Wonderful Life flopped at the box office, bankrupting Capra’s production company Liberty Pictures and ending his career. So forgotten was the film that it slipped out of copyright protection in 1974.
Once the movie entered the public domain, no studio could prevent people from screening it. TV stations across the country played the movie throughout the year, and the film eventually gained a devoted audience.
Only when It’s a Wonderful Life was publicly owned did it live up to Capra’s aspirations. Only then could people watch it and see the value of the individual as part of a community. Only then could they see signs of a God who works through people who reject the miserly path of business and give real, material care to one another.