The Greatest Conservative Films: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. And when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
All right, let’s be honest, folks: It’s A Wonderful Life is near-universally accepted as a “true” Christmas movie. But when you really get down to it…the argument against Die Hard could just as easily apply here: The last act of the picture happens to be set at Christmastime, sure…but it’s almost incidental, isn’t it? Couldn’t it just as easily have been set at Easter Week? Just because Jimmy Stewart shouts out “MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!” several times…
But I digress. Really, if It’s A Wonderful Life is a Christmas film, so is Die Hard. And I’m happy to accept both. SO—with that out of the way…
WHY IT’S A CONSERVATIVE FILM:
This is one of those movies where at first glance, if there’s anything you see that’s political, well…it almost comes off as—kinda Lefty, doesn’t it? After all, the villain’s an evil rich guy who only cares about money—
Well…no, technically—not money itself, so much as power. And even with the whole “Evil Rich Guy” thing, as it turns out, it’s really not that simple. It’s a beautiful bait-and-switch, courtesy of a few clever lines of dialogue. Consider…
As Peter Baily, owner of Bedford Falls’s “Building & Loans” bank, discusses with our hero, his oldest son George, the villainous Potter’s motivations are surprising even for capitalists—he’s unusual in exactly what sort of “greed” he’s got:
“I thought when I put him on the board of directors, he’d ease up on us a little bit.”
“Oh, what’s eating that money-grubbing buzzard, anyway?”
“Oh, he’s a sick man. Frustrated, sick in his mind—sick in his soul, if he has one. He hates everybody that has anything that he can’t have. Hates us mostly, I guess.”
Potter—owner of his own bank—has a serious entitlement mentality. To him, it’s not about the money—as both Baileys often point out to him, he’s got more than enough to splurge for his lifetime. He’s just got a control obsession—for whatever reason, he just wants power, and more power.
And lest we think he’s just a stereotypical Evil Greedy Capitalist even after all that…there’s a vital moment later in the film where it’s indicated that he’s got some government officials at his beck and call—including a congressman….
It’s what happens in the era of big government: the more government gets involved in business, the more the reverse happens in turn. It has to. As Danny DeVito noted in Other People’s Money, the rules change, but the game’s still around. And the more rules and regulations, the bigger an incentive to cheat—by bribing and paying off the rule-makers.
That seems to be the reason Potter can get away with his run-down slums. But take away the “pull”, and supply and demand win out…don’t they? Best possible quality, for lowest possible price.
Neither of which Potter’s particularly interested in.
George Bailey—Long-Term Capitalist:
In the aftermath of Peter Baily’s death, George appeals to the board of directors by pointing out how his father’s benevolent business practices made his low-income clients “better citizens…better customers”. And ultimately, he notes, the Building & Loans needs to stay around, to provide competition against Potter.
Well, he has to take over the Building & Loans, in order for it to remain in existence. From there, we see him offhandedly pitching to Sam Wainwright to set up a plastics factory in town at an old abandoned building—an opportunity to provide jobs for the community.
And when the Crash of ’29 hits, he’s needed desperately, to keep everyone from turning to Potter in desperation. Following this, it’s indicated that George proves deeply essential to helping the town weather through the Depression.
He takes on a massive building project, to that end: a suburb called “Bailey Park”…which booms, sending Potter into a tizzy:
“Look, Mr. Potter, it’s no skin off my nose. I’m just your little rent collector…but you can’t laugh off this Bailey Park, anymore! Look at it…fifteen years ago, a half a dozen houses stuck here and there…. Look at it today: Dozens of the prettiest little homes you ever saw—90% owned by suckers who used to pay rent to you! Your ‘Potter’s Field,’ my dear Mr. Employer, is becoming just that.”
And though Potter protests that Bailey’s not made a dime on it, the collector points out it isn’t that simple: “Every one of these homes is worth twice what it cost the Building & Loan to build! …One of these days, this bright young man is gonna ask George Bailey for a job!”
When it comes to innovation, and pure goods and services…Bailey’s a better businessman than Potter can ever be. Clout or no clout.
Sam Wainwright—Investor And Innovator:
Amid his craziness, George’s school buddy Sam Wainwright is shown to be another great businessman, running an international plastics manufacturing business. He’s shown to be highly successful—and he took George up on his idea for the factory in Bedford Falls. As Joseph notes to Clarence, he even “made a fortune in plastic hoods for planes”, during WWII.
Thus, though it’s ultimate George who’s the town’s line of defense against Potter, Sam serves as further proof that in this film, “rich”—even “super-rich”—does not equal “bad”.
Sam’s boorish, absolutely. But he’s a good man, when it counts. And it counts a lot. He wired a big check in the end—far more than the Building & Loan needs to stay afloat.
A rich man. And a good man.
“The Richest Man In Bedford Falls!”
Well, it’s Christmas, just after the war ends…and everything’s on the up-and-up. But then, disaster strikes. Through an unfortunate coincidence, Potter gets ahold of $8,000—the Building & Loan’s money. All of it. And without it, a sudden tragic reversal: the Building & Loan facing bankruptcy, and George Bailey about to face prison.
Here we get the famous sequence of him wishing to Clarence that he’d never been born. And in the end—once he realizes his value, and runs to his family filled with joy, he makes another discovery:
All the people he’s helped over the years have joined together to save the Building & Loan. Once again…in the long term, George Bailey has profited in a way that Potter never could. Being charitable and benevolent to others encourages them to be charitable and benevolent to you, when you’re down.
Capra and Rockwell:
Frank Capra’s been given the same bad rap from cultural academia as Norman Rockwell, for pretty much the same reasons: “Simplistic”—“Sentimental”—“Black-&-White”—that sorta thing.
In both cases, they’re dead wrong. Rockwell was all too aware of the darker sides of American society. Recall his painting The Problem We All Live With, where a black girl has to be escorted to school by the authorities, because of the racism fighting hard against desegregation. The thing is…Rockwell was also a firm believer in society’s redemption—he had hope that things could get better, because that’s what America does. And so, his counterpart piece on race: New Kids In The Neighborhood, where two white kids encounter two black kids who’re just moving nearby…a noticeable space between them—but the divide’s about to be breached because of all four kids’ mutual interest in baseball.
In Capra’s case, how often did he tackle corruption in our society? Mr. Smith Goes To Washington has an eerily familiar scenario involving The Washington Machine, for example.
But like with Rockwell, what the critics just can’t seem to bear about Capra is his sense of “Yes, but…”—his hopefulness that, in the end, the values and principles that make America, well, America will help clean the darkness away. We’ve got problems, Capra and Rockwell tell us…but we’re better than them. And we’ll get better.
We’re Americans. It’s what we do.
Faith And Hope:
I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the faith element of the film. I’ve been reluctant to add movies to this list just for Christian themes…but if they’re going to make the series anyway, it’s a nice bonus.
In this case, God (inexplicably called “Franklin” in the subtitles) is shown as caring for George—and while He seems somewhat aloof (Joseph—the “patron saint” of fathers—has to inform him of the man’s plight), He’s still decisive on bringing in Clarence to assign him to the mission.
For George’s part, he has to learn that, for all the frustrations and tragedy he’s had to deal with…God does care for him—and has a plan and purpose for him, after all.
The Value Of The Individual:
It’s the most harrowing, powerful, and memorable part of the film—the climax, in which George is shown exactly why he was needed in Bedford Falls—and why it’s wrong of him to wish he was never born.
See, for the whole film, George has had ambitions and dreams…all of which he’s kept from, for so many reasons. Constant roadblocks are thrown in his path, keeping him in Bedford Falls. He’s used his many talents and skills to help people out…but he’s increasingly frustrated by his ambitions never seeing the light of day. And when a debacle puts his whole business in jeopardy, he fears it’s all been for nothing. What was the point anyway?—everyone relies on him now, sure…but what if he was never around? Surely there would’ve been someone else…right?
Well…as it turns out, no. Clarence dramatically shows him just how valuable he really is—and with it, the value of every individual, in the page quote above.
You don’t get a more Conservative/Libertarian message than that. Every human being has a value all their own, as an individual—each with their own skills and talents. We just have to recognize that value, those abilities. From that, we find purpose in our lives—and with it, fulfillment.
For Bonus Points:
Early on, George is shown as a bit of a control freak, even as a boy lecturing Mary on why she should like coconuts on her ice cream. Perhaps this is his “tragic flaw”—why he can’t find satisfaction in the changing circumstances around him: he refuses to realize that life isn’t as simple as a plan—you have to mold your plans in accordance with the hands life deals you. It’s a game of poker, not chess.
Oh…and once again, the film’s surprisingly (if you’re a Lefty) interracial for a Golden Age film. Annie starts off as the Bailey family housemaid, and thus initially comes across like the “typical” movie trope of the sassy black nanny—but then she’s shown as a fellow matron of the town along with George’s mother. She’s even one of those who dumbs a boatload of money on the table in the end. She was saving it for a divorce, if she ever got a husband….
She’s not the only person of color in that ending. And that’s leaving aside the Italian and Irish and other then-“minority” folks we see throughout the film.
WHY IT’S A GREAT FILM:
It’s A Wonderful Life is remembered today as a classic. And that’s very ironic. Like far too many classics, it was shrugged off at its first release—a box-office flop that actually LOST the studio money. And while it got some love nomination-wise from the Academy…alas, it lost all those awards to The Best Years Of Our Lives. Quick—don’t look it up: What’s that movie about?
Exactly. And even for those cinephiles who do know (FYI: it’s about WWII veterans being down on their luck upon returning from the war), how many of you have seen it? At any rate, it doesn’t even have a percent of the “staying power” as Capra’s “bomb”.
At any rate, it’s sad how many great films were so far ahead of their time. Citizen Kane comes to mind, of course. So do Blade Runner…The Shawshank Redemption…Batman v. Superman (Ultimate Cut)…
Ironically, what saved Wonderful Life was an accidental slipping of the film into public domain. With that—and considering at what point in the year the climax happens to be set…TV stations started airing it constantly, during Christmastime. And so, for free, audiences found themselves exposed to a masterpiece…and appreciated it, at last.
Jimmy Stewart as George Baily:
George’s life is filled with irony. He’s filled with ambitions to get out of Bedford Falls and put his many talents to use doing big things…but he’s also got a big heart, and a strong awareness that, over and over again, the town needs him at this moment. Maybe next time…or next time…or the time after that….
But it never happens. Over and over, he’s pulled into staying to help everyone out of a crisis—and he has to watch his brother Harry go off and succeed in his dreams, on the school money George had intended to use, himself.
And amid George’s considerable business acumen keeping the town afloat and free from Potter, he never seems to notice that he is putting his talents to good, fulfilling use. His aforementioned stubbornness refuses to chance the plans he’s had since childhood—and he doesn’t even notice his own satisfaction in constantly sticking it to Potter, and doing right by the citizens of the town.
Jimmy Stewart was the Golden Age master of playing the “everyman”—the regular guy with wants and dreams…and vulnerabilities and insecurities. Excitable and nervous—earnest…and at the same time, confident and commanding enough to lead several Westerns, in his day.
And here, we see perhaps his greatest performance—his boyish enthusiasm, his deadpan humor, his simmering frustration, his enraged outbursts…his breaking down in tears, at the end of his rope…
And at last, his explosion of joy, “giddy as a drunken man”, as he finally realizes the value of all he’s got.
Donna Reed as Mary:
There’s something about Mary. On the one hand, she seems to stiffen a bit whenever George goes on about his ambitions. She loves the town, and perhaps doesn’t care for his bad-mouthing it in contrast to his dreams….
On the other hand, she does like his talking about giving her the moon. Her dream is to spend her life with George, whatever he does. She’d just personally prefer it be in Bedford Falls, perhaps living in the long-abandoned mansion—fully restored, of course.
At any rate, Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart have a delightful chemistry—and a playful humor leading them into some bizarre moments, like that immortal bush sequence:
And we know darn well that it’s enough to make him forget his frustrations, even as he pours them out. He’s got passions…passions he’ll channel, one way or another.
George’s mother notes to him that Mary’s “The kind that’ll help you find the answers.” Maybe she isn’t too wrong about that….
The Rest Of The Cast:
Lionel Barrymore brings intimidating, snarky charisma as Potter—culminating in his darkly triumphant rant as he gloats to George over the latter’s seeming defeat.
Legendary spunky bombshell Gloria Grahame plays Violet, the town “bad girl” who isn’t bad—she’s just drawn that way. And though she begins the film with something of a rivalry with Mary over George, she seems to accept defeat easily enough—and she’s got a heart of gold regardless. It makes the “Pottersville” sequence all the more meaningful: Violet’s sexy enough to make her fate in that other timeline inevitable…and gold-hearted enough to make it tragic.
Thomas Mitchell plays the bumbling, lovable Uncle Billy—faithful to the end, even as he fears he’s responsible for the Building & Loan being brought to the brink of disaster. (By the way: That moment where he smashes into something off-screen, and calls out “I’M ALL RIGHT!”…? That was 100% improvised—someone dropped some studio equipment, and Mitchell masterfully played it off as part of the scene!)
Ward Bond—veteran of many a John Ford film—plays Burt, the cop who ultimately bears witness to George’s famous outburst.
Henry Travers plays Clarence—the rookie angel now assigned to George, to encourage him to find value in the life he’s led. He’d filled with a cheery innocence that comes across as bumbling…and yet, as he shows George the alternate reality where George was never born, we see this fellow’s got a wise, reflective side—expressed in his final lesson for George…
The vivid intensity of the final act, as George, at the end of his rope, is about to attempt suicide….
And then, at last, the payoff of Joseph’s storytelling to Clarence, as the wingless angel pops up inconspicuously, jumping in the river himself, cleverly motiving George to put it off and “save” him. There, they have a heart-to-heart, where George finally lets out his fear that everybody would’ve better off without him ever being born. And there, Clarence gives his immortal words:
“You got your wish. You’ve never been born.”
From there, George bears witness to everything changed: Bedford Falls is now Pottersville—a bustling town of sin and vice, where everyone’s driven to cynicism and sass. The drugstore owner he worked for as a kid’s now a homeless drunk, never having been saved by George from accidentally poisoning someone. His brother’s dead, never having been saved from freezing as a child…by George—and therefore, Harry was never a war hero saving so many. The Building & Loan’s long out of business, and in its place is a dancing joint. There’s no Bailey Park, because George wasn’t around to build it. Everything’s owned by Potter. George has no family—his mom is a bitter crone running a boarding house, and Mary…
“You see, George? You really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be, to throw it away?”
Finally, George gets the message—he’ll take whatever happens to him, as long as he lives again.
A Merry Christmas:
Overjoyed beyond believe—crying out his joy and his thankfulness for everything and everyone around him. And upon arriving at hope, Mary’s brings some tidings of her own: A miracle. The entire town has come together to contribute to helping the man who’s helped them so much, so often.
Sam wires a big check, from overseas. And even the bank examiners are up to contribute—tearing up the warrant with an eager chuckle.
Harry shows up, to toast George, “The richest man in town!” And Clarence leaves his edition of Tom Sawyer, with a note:
Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.
Thanks for the wings!
And with a wink upward, George calls out, “Attaboy, Clarence.” All sing out “Auld Lang Syne”…and the curtain falls.
All’s right with the world. George has found his place and his purpose at last—and for tonight at least, all’s right with the world.
By The Way…
The cop’s named Bert, and the cabbie’s named Ernie. Yep. It’s a “hilarious in hindsight” situation—Jim Henson may or may not have been inspired by the film, for the names of his iconic Sesame Street duo….
Originally, right after George calls out a “MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!” to Potter on his way home…Potter was to get a visitation from Clarence—who proclaims judgment upon him, for his evil deeds. Potter topples over. While certainly just and satisfying, it was presumably judged a bit jarring in the changes of mood…and perhaps a bit dark for our cheery and happy-go-lucky Clarence.
Jimmy Stewart’s actually counted among the ranks of Hollywood Conservatives. He also served in WWII. It’s A Wonderful Life was actually his first role after serving his tour of duty.
Capra also did his part for the war effort, with his legendary Why We Fight series of documentaries about exactly who we were fighting, and, well…why.
Oh…and that raven’s a bit of a stable of Frank Capra’s flicks.
Buy this masterpiece here. And stay film-friendly, my friends.
THE SERIES SO FAR:
Rio Bravo (1959)
Man of Steel (2013)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Fight Club (1999)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Jackie Brown (1997)
Apocalypse Now (1979/2001)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Dirty Harry (1971)
Magnum Force (1973)
The Enforcer (1976)
Bridge Of Spies (2015)
Captain America: Civil War. (2016)
The Green Berets (1968)
Wonder Woman (2017)
Other People’s Money (1991)
Hail, Caesar! (2015)
Gran Torino (2008)
Die Hard (1988)
Any recommendations for films to make this series? Read the rules, here, and let us know!
Eric was raised by Conservative Christian parents, but first became especially passionate about politics in high school, through reading up on economic theory. He also first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged around this time, for the ARI's essay contests. He now owns a great deal of Ayn Rand's work. Also included in his library are the collected works of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, etc.
Eric is no stranger to writing commentary, as the writer of the Conservative Considerations column on CampCampaign.com, and as a film critic and commentator on FlickRev.com. He has also carried on the Conservative tradition of talk radio commentary, as the host of "Avengers of America" for the USF student radio station, Bulls Radio. In the meantime, he is practicing what he preaches: Striving to enter the professional realm of Hollywood, he has already written and directed short films for the Campus MovieFest, which can be found on his YouTube channel, Hard Boiled Entertainment.
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- The Greatest Conservative Films: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) - December 28, 2017