Against Capra’s Critics: In Defense of It’s a Wonderful Life
This essay originally appeared at FirstThings.com.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Perhaps the most beloved of Christmas movies, Frank Capra’s sleeper classic It’s a Wonderful Life has inevitably become a target of seasonal, iconoclastic culture-warmongering. As Christmas approaches, essays crop up in media outlets baldly inverting the film’s moral universe, ripping George Bailey and small-town Bedford Falls, and even rehabilitating villainous Mr. Potter and the nightmare alternate reality of Pottersville.
“Pottersville rocks!” proclaims Gary Kamiya in a 2001 essay at Salon.com. Going further, Kyle Smith in a 2007 essay at NYPost.com celebrates Mr. Potter as “the unsung hero of It’s a Wonderful Life, the canny businessman who tried (and, alas, failed) to turn boring, repressed Bedford Falls — a town full of drunks, child beaters, vandals and racial and sexual harassers — into an exciting new destination nightspot called Pottersville.”
As for the film itself, Wendell Jamieson, in a 2008 New York Times essay, assures us that — far from the “cheery holiday tale” it’s thought to be — It’s a Wonderful Life is actually “a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams … 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.”
Like most good lies, these claims are half true. Capra’s film is much darker than its popular image; and the darkness is far from confined to the ruthless Mr. Potter and Pottersville. George Bailey is a deeply flawed hero, and while the case against Bedford Falls may be somewhat overstated, George isn’t wrong to want to shake the dust of his “crummy little town” off his feet.
But the debunkers don’t stop there. Kamiya’s defense of Pottersville leads to such inanities as these: “Dime-a-dance joints promote bonhomie. Prize fights and strip clubs provide weary citizens with much-needed catharsis. And a pawnshop makes it possible for those temporarily short on funds to participate in the full range of the community’s activities.”
Smith’s rant is the most transparently facile. Whatever problems Bedford Falls has with “drunks, child beaters, vandals and racial and sexual harassers,” would there be less of all this in Pottersville, or more? Smith waxes puritanically moralistic about minor vandalism (George and Mary throwing rocks at the old Granville place), yet when it comes to a banker maliciously absconding with a client’s deposit funds, the strongest word Smith can bring himself to use is “unethical.” (Smith actually claims Potter breaks no laws.)
Jamieson rightly highlights all that George gives up: world travel, higher education, big-city engineering. Yet he glosses over the film’s central contention that “relinquishing his dreams” has been for George (disappointments and failures notwithstanding) part and parcel of a life well lived. Heroically putting others first, George has both accomplished and gained much of lasting value, from his loving wife and family to the thriving community of homeowners in Bailey Park who no longer rent in the slums of Potter’s Field. (To Jamieson’s characterization of George’s wife as “oppressively perfect,” I can only say that a man who can contrive to be “oppressed” by Donna Reed’s luminous Mary Hatch Bailey will never lack occasions for “oppression” in life.)
It’s a Destructive Life?
For at least a decade, a very different revisionist critique of It’s a Wonderful Life has been advanced by Patrick J. Deneen, most recently at FirstThings.com.
In a welcome contrast to other revisionist critics, Deneen abhors Pottersville and celebrates Bedford Falls. His brief against George Bailey is not that he saves Bedford Falls, but precisely that he “destroys” it. In George’s hostility to his “crummy little town,” and his youthful dreams of building airfields, skyscrapers, and bridges, Deneen sees the modernist “vision of post-war America”—and, while circumstances contrive to keep him from his dreams, in Deneen’s reading George channels his modernist vision into transforming his hometown.
Deneen’s target is not Bedford Falls, but Bailey Park: a “modern subdivision of single-family houses” with “no trees, no sidewalks, no porches, but instead wide streets and large yards with garages.” Bailey Park, Deneen argues, is an “experiment in progressive living” representing “a fundamental break from the way of life in Bedford Falls,” endangering the future of the relationships and community that ultimately save George from ruin.
While I’m sympathetic to the urban-design concerns Deneen invokes, it’s easy to nitpick about the specifics of his case: Trees both large and small can be seen in Bailey Park, and porches also. As for sidewalks, landscaping and such is clearly ongoing, and I see no reason to suppose they aren’t coming.
Even granting the general applicability of Deneen’s critique of Bailey Park’s incipient suburban sprawl, what are we to make of the charge that George “destroys” Bedford Falls? Obviously George doesn’t literally raze pedestrian-friendly downtown Bedford Falls in order to build his automobile-friendly subdivision. The construction of Bailey Park presumably entails leveling many trees, but the tree-lined avenues Deneen celebrates suffer no greater damage than a nasty gash to one tree from an automobile accident.
Deneen offers no reason to suppose that Bedford Falls’ picturesque downtown will suffer catastrophic harm from the architectural modernism of Bailey Park. Indeed, the one clear effect of George’s actions on downtown Bedford Falls is to prevent it from becoming Pottersville. To that extent, clearly George has not “destroyed” Bedford Falls, but saved it.
Deneen’s main point seems to be that downtown Bedford Falls has communitarian virtues lacking in Bailey Park. But this is a somewhat misleading comparison. Bailey Park wasn’t built for former residents of downtown Bedford Falls, but for former renters of the slums of Potter’s Field.
Strangely, these slums don’t figure in Deneen’s consideration of the social vitality of Bedford Falls absent George’s actions. The real dilemma is not Bedford Falls with or without Bailey Park, but Bedford Falls with a) more people “living like pigs” in teeming slums in Potter’s Field, or with b) more proud homeowners living in “dozens of the prettiest little homes you ever saw” in Bailey Park. George, in one of the film’s most famous monologues, argues for the latter; Deneen doesn’t engage this argument.
At the outset Deneen blames the erosion of small towns like Bedford Falls on a larger set of suspects: Woolworth, Kmart, and Walmart; the automobile; subdivisions, interstates, and the suburbs. That’s a formidable list of sociological factors to gloss over in order to lay the blame at the feet of one man.
Deneen’s most shocking claim involves a bizarre misreading of the climactic scene in which George, searching for Bailey Park in the alternative world of Pottersville, stumbles upon the old cemetery where, in that world, nine-year-old Harry Bailey was buried. From this scene Deneen leaps to a stunning conclusion: “Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. Not only does George raze the trees, but he commits an act of sacrilege. He obliterates a sacred symbol of Bedford Fall’s connection with the past, the grave markers of the town’s ancestors.”
Nothing in the movie justifies a conclusion that would obviously be repugnant to the filmmakers and to everyone in George’s world, including George himself. Even if the movie provided no more perspective on the geographical relationship of Bailey Park and the old cemetery than Deneen cites, any other plausible explanation would be more reasonable (e.g., that the cemetery was inaugurated in that spot, or spread to that spot, in lieu of Bailey Park, or that, as sometimes happens, the cemetery was relocated to another site).
In fact, the film does offer additional information regarding the geographical relationship of Bailey Park and the cemetery in an earlier scene with Mr. Potter’s rent collector, Reineman, comparing a pair of maps showing the growth of Bailey Park over fifteen years. From what we see of the maps, and the areas Reineman indicates, it seems clear that the new construction is some distance from the cemetery.
Perhaps Deneen’s real concerns have less to do with the content of the film than the sociological and architectural contrasts between small towns like Bedford Falls and modern subdivisions like Bailey Park.
Perhaps when he concludes, “It is [George’s] world that we inhabit today, and our nostalgia for the film should not blind us to the fact that we are not the better for his actions,” Deneen really means to blame the actions of men with modernist impulses similar to George’s (and often lacking his heroic virtues).
Read as a critical commentary on It’s a Wonderful Life, though, Deneen’s comments are as antithetical to a true evaluation of the film’s meaning and virtues as the toxic “All hail Pottersville” iconoclasm of other revisionists.