An interesting article appeared last Christmas in the New York Times entitled, “It’s A Wonderful Life? It’s A Miserable Life!”. It nails certain aspects of that classic movie, but ignores (perhaps purposefully) some of the Gospel-related themes. Two particularly potent examples stuck out to me:
(1) “Now as for that famous alternate-reality sequence: This is supposedly what the town would turn out to be if not for George. I interpret it instead as showing the true characters of these individuals, their venal internal selves stripped bare.” . . . Ernie the cabbie’s blank face speaks true misery as George enters his taxi.”
I agree. But what about Bedford Falls caused the characters to turn out differently? Take the following scene when the Board of the Bailey Business & Loan is meeting after the death of George’s father:
Potter: Peter Bailey was not a business man. That’s what killed him. Oh, I don’t mean any disrespect to him, God rest his soul. He was a man of high ideals, so-called. But ideas without common sense can ruin this town. Now, you take this loan here to Ernie Bishop . . . you know, that fellow that sits around all day on his brains in his taxi, you know. I happen to know the bank turned down this loan, but he comes here and we’re building him a house worth five thousand dollars. Why?
George: Well, I handled that, Mr. Potter. You have all the papers there. His salary, insurance. I can personally vouch for his character.”
Under Potter’s rules, Ernie the cab driver did not measure up. Potter’s bank turned down his loan application. Yet despite his inadequacy, the Bailey Building & Loan granted him a loan so that he could build his first house. The grace and love George Bailey showed him allowed Ernie himself to offer love to others such as George. The blank stare from Pottersville is gone because Bailey loved him despite his failings. The same could be said for Violet and Uncle Billy.
(2) “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife.”
Yet Capra favors Bedford Falls over Pottersville. In the movie, before George was to leave for college, George expressed his hopes and dreams to his Father (before his father dies later that night):
George: Oh well, you know what I’ve always talked about . . . build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities, all that stuff I was talking about.
Peter: Still after that first million before you’re thirty.
George: No, I’ll settle for half of that in cash.
Peter: Of course, it’s just a hope, but uh, you wouldn’t consider coming back to the Building & Loan, would you?
George: I couldn’t. I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office. . . . Oh, I’m sorry, Pop, I didn’t mean it that way, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe – I’d go crazy. I want to do something big and something important.
Later that night, he describes his plans to Mary:
George: Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust off this crummy little town off my feet and I’m going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then I’m coming back here to go to college and see what they know, and then I’m going to build things. I’m going to build air fields. I’m going to build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m going to build bridges a mile long.”
Within moments, it becomes evident that George does not have the control over his life he envisioned. Over the years, George’s disappointments pile up and his anger culminates in the December 24 tirade the article aptly depicts. George finally prays: “I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.”
This relinquishing of control allows the Holy Spirit (through the angel Clarence trying to get his wings) to demonstrate to him that self-sacrificing love is what is important in life. He recognizes the importance and meaning of the defeats he has had in his life. As a result, when he returns to Bedford Falls from Pottersville, he proclaims: “I’ll bet it’s a warrant for my arrest. Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail.”
The article concludes that “Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future.” For Capra, the “fun” environment and stronger future did not help Ernie, Violet, or Uncle Billy. For Capra and ultimately for George, Pottersville represents progress in the wrong direction.