It’s Not a Wonderful Life


It's a Wonderful Life
I’m convinced many Americans – Donald Trump among them – think Frank Capra’s famous film, It’s a Wonderful Life, was a documentary, not entertainment. It has all the elements of Trumpist utopia: a white, Christian, unquestionably patriotic, male-dominated, patriarchal culture where the bad guy gets away with stealing from others, and making himself rich at everyone else’s expense. No one stops him and everyone still lives happily ever after.*

Married women in the film are mostly housewives; those women who work are secretaries and clerks while men are the bosses. There is little traffic: no hopped-up cars, no street racing, no motorcycles or biker gangs. Streets are broad and tree-lined; no apartments or highrises. The pretty downtown would be a heritage district today, frozen in time against modernization and change.

You don’t see teenagers loitering around coffee shops obsessed with their cell phones. Younger kids have jobs and even run businesses. There are no unions. Everyone dresses modestly, clothed from neck to ankle to wrist. Children appear in families without the messy, distracting business of sex (although there is a suggestive kiss in the film). There isn’t even a honeymoon for the newly married couple.

People of colour appear in it only as polite servants, employees or entertainers. From my count only five black people are in the film: the family servant, a couple in the high school dance scene (possibly the same couple who appear on the street in the background of a scene where George and Violet flirt), a delivery person who appears only in the final scene and a piano player in a honky tonk a la Fats Waller. Only Nora, the black servant, has any lines. The rest are mere background.

No Mexicans, Asians, Indians or other ethnicities. No Thai food restaurants or Chinese or Indian, no fast food drive-throughs. The downtown has no graffiti, no litter, no stray dogs or homeless people. You can drink and drive without consequences since the police are aw-shucks-just-folk torn from the set of Andy Griffiths’ Mayberry. There are no drugs, no drunks, no social housing. No strip clubs.

And of course it is watched over by a jovial, benevolent god who appoints a happy, somewhat feckless angel to make sure things go right.** George Bailey, secular at the start, learns to pray by the end. Every time you hear a bell, an angel gets its wings. No place in Bedford Falls for the unbeliever. Or the Jew. Or the Muslim. George prays, muttering his own version of Oh, Father, why hast Thou forsaken me? And he gets results. God is always on hand to absolve the faithful of their folly, just as long as they ask nicely. You don’t even need to believe, just make a show of doing so.

For the “make America great again” crowd, this is their fantasy world. An idyllic life set in the 1950s where children said please and thanks and called their elders sir and ma’am, coloured folk knew their place, and everyone had a non-union job, and dressed well and went to church on Sunday. All the white folk grow up to get married and have families and nice homes. The black folk grow up to be single and servants. And the white guy at the centre of the spider web, Old Man Potter, owns the whole town except for a few buildings owned by brave George Bailey and his plucky, but poor, relatives. Capitalism at its finest.

Today’s world is like Pottersville – that seedy, dark, commercialized, shallow, multicultural and integrated, with nasty jazz music – world that George gets to visit thanks to divine intervention. A divine warning: buck up or here’s what you get. The world that would have been had he not lived. The world from which Trump wants to save Americans. But blacks are not any more welcome in Pottersville than in Bedford Falls, unless they fill the same menial roles.

Trump wants us all to go back to Bedford Falls and Mayberry. Trump’s own world – the place where he cons people, lies, avoids taxes, short changes his workers, refuses to pay his bills and gets sued for fraud – is Pottersville. But he too wants to live in Bedford Falls where, like Old Man Potter, he can get away with all those things sans the consequences. There he can deal with the pesky rattling of a fellow like George Bailey because, basically, George doesn’t matter. He’s not a power, not a force. He’s not very good at business, not a success, not rich. Potter is. In Bedford Falls, Potter wins, all the time.

Does anyone recall George’s dreams to travel and explore new horizons? Or to become an architect and “design buildings and build modern cities”? At every turn he is stymied, kept at home, helping keep Bedford Falls in its cultural and social stasis. He can’t even get into the army when war breaks out. His brother does. His friend moves away and becomes a success. Not George. He’s like Dorothy who never gets to visit Oz, who never tastes the adventure and magic. George sacrifices everything and his reward is a return to the status quo. Everything conspires so that conformity wins (one is reminded of the ending of the 1967 film, Privilege…).

As noted in a piece in The Artifice, everything in the film traps George into conforming to a culture and society he wanted to escape, to assuming roles and stereotypes:

After his (father’s) death, George is meant to take on this role within the community even though he desperately wants to leave town. But every time he is about to leave to pursue his own ambitions, he is pulled back by the citizens in need of him. A number of characters seem to be infantilised, like Clarence or Uncle Billy, and they significantly depend on George to get them out of the troubles their naiveté have lead them into.
The whole community knocks on George’s door for help, all imbued in this childishness and innocence that makes them easy targets for Potter. George seems to be the only one strong enough to prevent them from falling into Potter’s trap which makes him the fatherly figure of the community, a role he did not choose for himself. He is forced to reside in Bedford, trapped into being the provider, guide and savior of the community.

At the end of the movie, after his epiphany, George’s family, friends and relatives unhesitatingly cough up the money from their own savings to replace that stolen by Potter. Isn’t that the perfect Trump no-karma economics? His ideal form of no-fault capitalism?

Build a wall; the taxpayers will pay for it. Repeal health care; the taxpayers will pay for the consequences. Start a trade war with China; the taxpayers will pay for the fallout. Potter doesn’t even get his wrist slapped. The police don’t investigate. There is no Dante-esque journey for him through the darkness into the light, no jittery climb to the brink of suicide where he pulls back: Potter goes home with his cash, sleeps soundly and no one so much as blinks. This isn’t Dickens where Scrooge changes after his epiphany: Potter is the ultimate victor here, unchanged and unrepentant.

The ethics and morality of banking in the film is a powerful subtext, nicely covered by a piece in Atlantic magazine, which notes,

…the movie does a good job of portraying the downsides of what it means to be both a “good” bank (one that lends to people who need it, but is likely over-leveraged) and a “bad” bank (a more profitable one that loans at high interest rates and only provides credit to people who already have money). But there are also inherent moral judgments about the way a bank should work that come across as too black-and-white. For example, when Potter asks Bailey, “Are you running a business or a charity?” we know it’s not mutually exclusive like that. After all, a bank ideally would help people reach financial goals while also turning a profit.

The movie was produced at the end of WWII, when America was feeling antsy about its former ally, the USSR, and the tsunami of red-baiting, anti-Communism was just starting to swell. In only a couple of years it would be the full force of America’s second Red Scare. But in Bedford Falls, an idealistic capitalism reigned, where profits defined the social status and power of the residents. Capitalism uber alles! It was as if Ayn Rand consulted on the script.

TV’s Mayberry was a fantasy world as alien to the actual American landscape as any world Edgar Rice Burroughs dreamt up, but it has since created a powerful nostalgia for viewers who see it as reality TV. Thousands of tourists visit Mount Airy, NC annually – the birthplace of Andy Griffith where his bronze statue now stands – to pay homage to that dream world. This is ground zero for the make-America-great dreamers.***

Mayberry was as much a whitewash as Bedford Falls, as Frank Rich wrote for the NY Mag but the false nostalgia for better times has obscured it:

In reality, The Andy Griffith Show didn’t transcend the deep divides of its time. It merely ignored them. “Local control” of Mayberry saw to it that this southern town would remain lily-white for all eight years of its fictive existence rather than submit to any civil-rights laws that would require the federal government’s “top-down management” to enforce…
The wave of nostalgia for Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and for the vanished halcyon America it supposedly enshrined says more about the frazzled state of America in 2012 and our congenital historical amnesia than it does about the reality of America in 1960. The eulogists’ sentimental juxtapositions of then and now were foreordained. If there’s one battle cry that unites our divided populace, it’s that the country has gone to hell and that almost any modern era, with the possible exception of the Great Depression, is superior in civic grace, selfless patriotism, and can-do capitalistic spunk to our present nadir. For nearly four years now—since the crash of ’08 and the accompanying ascent of Barack Obama—America has been in full decline panic. Books by public intellectuals, pundits, and politicians heralding our imminent collapse have been one of the few reliable growth industries in hard times.

And as Jim Sack wrote in Times Union, while some of us longed for the peace of Mayberry, many saw the man behind the curtain pulling the levers and it wasn’t so pretty:

While white, middle-class Americans enjoyed the peaceful existence in Mayberry, other families noticed the absence of African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, in addition to other minorities. If religion was mentioned or referred to in any way, it was Christianity that took center stage, such as when Andy and Barney sang in the church choir.

In a recent story about the hometown of Andy Griffiths in the Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote:

Seventy-four percent of white evangelicals believe American culture has mostly changed for the worse since the 1950s — more than any other group of Americans — compared with 56 percent of all whites, according to a 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. In sharp contrast, 62 percent of African Americans and 57 percent of Hispanic Americans think the culture has changed for the better, the survey said.
With his promise to “Make America Great Again,” Trump appealed directly to this sense of dispossession, and 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for him, according to exit polls.

Mayberry was originally written to offer a nostalgic look at the 1930s for those growing up in the changing and challenging 1960s. It morphed into a fairy tale about modern times during production.

Every generation looks back at some point to a past that they fantasize was better than that in which they live. Capra’s film was shot in the late 1940s with strong, dark echoes of the 1930s and the Depression, but has since become conflated with its happier-time TV counterpart Mayberry.

But for many, Capra’s film is not a saccharine story about redemption and salvation, nor is it about about conformity and the acceptance of the orthodox view as the right way. It’s a dark picture of hard times. Salon magazine called it “The most terrifying movie ever… a tale of hunger, greed and a troubled America.” Author Rich Cohen wrote,

George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn’t know it. Because he was seeing the world through his eyes — not as it was, but as he was: honest and fair. But on “The Night Journey,” George is nothing and nobody. When the angel took him out of his life, he took him out of his consciousness, out from behind his eyes. It was only then that he saw America. Bedford Falls was the fantasy. Pottersville is where we live. If you don’t believe me, examine the dystopia of the Capra movie — the nighttime world of neon bars and drunks and showgirl floozies. Does Bedford Falls feel more like the place you live, or does Pottersville? I live in a place that looks very much like Bedford Falls, but after 10 minutes in line at the bank or in the locker room where the squirts are changing for hockey I know I’m in Pottersville.

But that sort of analysis is beyond most people who want the feel good, take-me-away-from-reality emotional ride that the film offers. They want a happy ending. But is it? Writer Noah Berlatsky offered this bleak view of the movie after the US presidential election:

Last month, across the nation, heartland Americans like good old George (Jimmy Stewart) and his loving wife Mary (Donna Reed) joined with wealthy creeps like Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) to give a bigoted authoritarian the nuclear codes. The bustling scene at the end of the film, with cheerful neighbors crowding into George’s front hall to celebrate and wish him well?—?are those scenes of communal democratic virtue? Or are they scenes from a fascist rally where the participants have just removed for a moment their “Make America Great Again” caps?

Berlatsky closes his piece with this observation that the film isn’t as much about George’s salvation as it is about George returning to his role as an essential cog in the machine of conformity:

George is a bulwark against the corrupt elites; without him, urbanization will ooze in, causing black people to be independent and gender roles to warp, leaving a wake of loose women and spinsters cluttering the streets.
We need George to shore up the American verities, whatever those may be. It’s a wonderful life for white male small bankers, and all those?—?including quite possibly Mr. Potter?—?who see themselves in white male small bankers. Or at least, it better be a wonderful life. If it isn’t, there are many George Baileys willing to break America to make it great again.

There is no time in American history that you can turn back the clock to and find a “greater” America. Not only has the country moved on, everything has: technology, music, literature, international relations, science, politics, other nations… you can’t undo those changes without turning off the internet, giving up electricity, phones, TV sets, cars, refrigeration, vaccines and modern medicine, flight, unions, pensions, benefits, cell phones, Amazon and big-box supermarkets…

The bucolic Mayberry and the cozily anti-urban Bedford Falls, along with similar intellectual and cultural pablum like Leave It to Beaver, My Three Sons and Father Knows Best, were as much fantasies as Oz and Barsoom. There is no magic to transport anyone into those closed, sterile yet wholesome environments: no HEPA-like filter to screen out today’s more open, more conscious, more radicalized mores and manners. You cannot turn today into some imaginary “Traditional America.”

Trump may turn the clock back on legislation – religion and abortion being main focal points; more the the former less of the latter – to make his evangelical followers happy. Trump may undo rights, restrict freedoms, repeal social gains, move legislation backwards, restore bigotry to the USA and elevate the white supremacists, but he will not transport it back to some idyllic pseudo-past. In the end, the country will be worse – much worse – than before his reign. but in a very Newtonian manner, every action will see its opposite reaction. He will displease, disenfranchise, disappoint and distress his own followers in equal measure.

There is no Wonderful Life to slip into like some comfortable, worn slipper at the end of the day. Reality will always intrude.

* The film was released recently (2016?) in a colourized version as well as the original black-and-white. While I originally thought this a pleasant change, I realized quickly that the colour occluded the darker, film-noir aspects of the film. The darkness of George’s mania and suicide attempt slides in almost cheery pastels. The grittiness of Pottersville becomes almost bright and welcoming. It’s a mistake to watch it in colour because it makes too many scenes bland, distracts from too many of the more emotional moments. The contrast between the lightness of George’s life (home and office) and Potter’s dark office is lost.

** I was never sure if Capra’s portrayal of the talking galaxies in the divine role was not a subtle mockery or an attempt to be reverential. Either way, it comes across as rather corny.

*** “Bloviating billionaire and reality TV star” Trump has been compared with the bully in one episode of the Andy griffith show in which little Ron Howard confronts the obnoxious bully – the micro Trump.

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