A megalomaniacal real estate magnate uses his power and money to subjugate immigrants, the poor, and the common people, while family-owned businesses are swallowed up by his corporate machine. After losing almost everything after a financial meltdown, one man is forced to the brink as the banks threaten to take everything.
Donald Trump or Mr. Potter? The Great Recession or the run on Bailey Building & Loan?
George Bailey’s conflict between adventure and kindness among the mundanity of normal life, and the schemes of Mr. Potter are as painfully relevant today as they were 70 years ago, when It’s a Wonderful Life premiered at the Globe Theater in New York City. Despite its now near-universal acclaim and fame, It’s a Wonderful Life released to pretty mixed reviews. It wasn’t until the 1970s when it began to run in syndication during the holiday season that it became a classic.
Nowadays, the characters within this film are, at the very least, almost household names. George Bailey, Mary Hatch, Mr. Potter, the angel Clarence, Ernie the cab driver, Uncle Billy…the list of now immortal characters and performances goes on and on. I can think of no time more appropriate than now, in this oft condemned year, and not too long before the inauguration of President-Elect Donald Trump, for this film to be revisited, and correctly understood.
See the issue with It’s a Wonderful Life is that all anyone remembers is the final 20 minutes. Ask anyone on the street, “What’s it about?” and I bet my bottom dollar that their description is something like this: “George Bailey thinks that the world would be better off without him, so an angel named Clarence is sent to show him what that world would be like.” The final 20 minutes is certainly important, but it’s just not what the movie is about. The point isn’t that life would be worse without George in it. It’s a Wonderful Life sets out to prove that there are adventure and beauty within the constants, the usual, the doldrums, of everyday life.
George is famously played by Jimmy Stewart, in one of his finest roles. He has a comedic style that is unrecognizable today, with masterful timing and subtlety being his aces. Stewart can mutter or ramble and raise an eyebrow in a way that, for no seemingly good reason, has you in fits. But he’s also incredibly sad and can be dangerously scary.
George longs to get out of his small town, and if that isn’t the most relatable story in all of human existence. But at every turn, something stops him. George is always torn between an undeniable need to help others, and his deep desire to leave and to adventure. When George does choose to help others, he suffers for it, time and time again.
This conflict between helping others and George doing what he wants plays out several times, first when he saves his kid brother Harry from drowning in a freezing river, and receives an infected and permanently dulled ear for it. Then he tells a grieving and drunken Mr. Gower that he has accidentally sent poison to a child, for which Gower beats him in his ear.
George is prepared to travel the world but postpones his plans when his father dies, and he is asked to sort out the family business, Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan. On the night of his honeymoon, he sacrifices his trip to lend financial support to debtors after a run on the bank. George is well aware of this infuriating dichotomy, and he almost, almost, keeps him from falling in love.
Donna Reed plays Mary Bailey, George’s sweetheart and eventual wife. And she plays her role with the same aptitude and ability as Stewart. She’s delightfully funny and sweet, using her infectious charm and vocal ability to deliver some of the movies best lines. And it’s her and George’s relationship that is the foundation of the first two acts of the film. He desperately tries not to fall in love with her, knowing that if and once he does, he is one step closer to staying in Bedford Falls forever.
George’s attempt to not fall in love is best seen in one of the greatest scenes of the movie, as George paces in front of Mary’s house, refusing to knock or call on Mary. Mary, of course, sees this and calls him out on it. George is flustered and annoyed, claiming, “I just went for a walk and happened to be passing by…What do you…went for a walk, that’s all.” Later in this scene, Mary’s mother inquires as to what George Bailey wants, and perhaps the best exchange of the whole film plays out.
Mrs. Hatch: “George Bailey? What’s he want?”
Mary: “I don’t know. (to George) What do you want?”
George: “Me? Not a thing. I just came in to get warm.”
Mary: “He’s making violent love to me, Mother.”
George cannot bring himself to admit that he is there for Mary because Mary wants to stay in Bedford Falls, which he cannot fathom. Later, his chance to leave comes up when their friend Sam offers him a job in New York, but George’s innate ability to always help kicks in and he reminds Sam that there is a perfectly good empty factory right in Bedford Falls. George then breaks down in anger, unable to cope with the fact that all of his dreams of leaving are within reach, yet everything, including the love of his life, is right there in Bedford Falls.
George goes on to finance housing development, Bailey Park, where folks, especially those who are without means, can purchase homes and escape Mr. Potter’s housing slums. We see all this through Mr. Martini, an Italian immigrant, and his family who George and Mary help move into a new home. They give Martini and his family bread and wine to commemorate the event, in a touching scene. Yet George is distracted by the appearance of their friend Sam, standing outside a fancy car. Later, he and Sam talk, and George once again turns down the chance for adventure. After, he is visibly angry and slams his car door. Even in this touching moment, George is unable to look past what could have been. This refusal to see what is in front of him is made even more astounding when placed against our villain, Mr. Potter.
Mr. Potter is wealthy, greedy, and conniving. His character is visually expressed through his fat cat like appearance, always sitting in a chair that is pushed by some crony, and his loud, pushy tone. His quotes define him better than any description ever could: “What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.” “Most people hate me, but I don’t like them either so that makes it all even.” He controls almost everything in Bedford Falls, including the slums where the Martini family is forced to live. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, Potter insists on pressing his debtors no matter their circumstances, always maximizing his profits despite his lack of need.
What makes Potter terrifying is the absolute control he has over everything, and his ability to coerce everyone. His constant threat over the Building and Loan as a member of its board of directors gives Uncle Billy an almost crippling anxiety. He almost gets George too, by simply reminding him of truths: George doesn’t make enough money to continue supporting his family, especially not if he wants to get out finally. Potter believes that his money allows him to control everything and everyone. At one point in the film, Potter’s secretary informs him that a congressman is calling for him. Potter tells the congressman to wait.
The film finally approaches its most remembered portion when George is forced to approach Potter for a loan after Uncle Billy loses some money. When George puts up his life insurance as collateral, Potter tells him, “You’re worth more dead than alive. Why don’t you go to the riff-raff you love so much and ask them to let you have eight thousand dollars? You know why? Because they’d run you out of town on a rail…” Potter has convinced George, a financially destitute man who’s situation has put him in a bad state of mind, that the immigrants and less-fortunate individuals who surround his life are more likely to ruin his life further than to help him. George, in the face of this wealthy and powerful man, gives in. Doesn’t that just sound familiar?
It’s Christmas Eve in a pre-Trump world, and once again, like many families out there, we are watching It’s a Wonderful Life. And I’m sure that some of those families support the President-elect, publicly or privately, completely unaware of their contradiction. Everyone roots for George, champion of the people, a believer in welfare and the common man, even if he doesn’t believe in himself, and can’t see the worth in his acts. But we know their worth. Advocating and supporting minorities, the less fortunate, the common person, the destitute, the other, is right. And doing what is right isn’t always easy. Sometimes you end up with a boxed ear, or your dreams don’t go the way you thought they would. But it’s still right.
George finally learns to see the beauty in the normal, the small acts, in doing what is right. Ironically, he knows this truth from the beginning, because he commends his father for doing that very thing. George understands a truth that Mr. Potter, and seemingly the current President-elect, do not. It’s a truth about immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, the differently abled, women, the poor, and every other group and individual that the President has personally insulted.
“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? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!”
To all who support the current President-elect, as you watch this movie: remember that It’s a Wonderful Life was made by and for the Greatest Generation, in the time of which you seem to believe that America was great, and needs to be so again. And yet, that generation and every one since have known a simple fact.
Mr. Potter is a villain. George is a hero.
Because It’s a Wonderful Life.