The writer is a Wendell Jamieson, who declares his affection for the movie, while saying:
Lots of people love this movie of course. But I’m convinced it’s for the wrong reasons. Because to me “It’s a Wonderful Life” is anything but a cheery holiday tale.
Was this what adulthood promised?
“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.
I’ve found, after repeated viewings, that the film turns upside down and inside out, and some glaring — and often funny — flaws become apparent. These flaws have somehow deepened my affection for it over the years.
Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It’s been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s scheming financier.
Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.''
Gary Kamiya, in a funny story on Salon.com in 2001, rightly pointed out how much fun Pottersville appears to be, and how awful and dull Bedford Falls is. He even noticed that the only entertainment in the real town, glimpsed on the marquee of the movie theater after George emerges from the alternate universe, is “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”
Now that’s scary.
I’ll do Mr. Kamiya one better, though. Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Wonderful Life” manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly.
On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.''
Jamieson says that his first viewing of the movie was at age 15, when his high-school teacher showed the film to his class. So, doing the math, it looks as though he would now be 42, but his comments seem to indicate that he is still 15 emotionally. At that age, one thinks that nightlife and pleasure-seeking are the height of glamor and fun. But can one build a satisfying life, and raise a family in a town which depends on human weaknesses and lusts for its sustenance? Man does not live by bread alone, even if vice is lucrative.
The America represented in Frank Capra's movies, including this one, is an America that is a foreign country to many of the younger generations.
Liberals usually ignore the fact that ''the past is another country." We cannot judge "another country" by the standards of the country that is post-American America.
The younger generations, sadly, have essentially grown up in the ugly Pottersville of postmodern America. So I suppose it is only natural that someone born in the mid-60s and coming of age in the 80s might sneer at old America, as represented by Bedford Falls, as 'stultifying' or boring. Pottersville, with its bright lights, materialism, and raucous pleasure-seeking would be more to the tastes of those brought up in post-60s, urbanized, X-rated, 'new' America. It's what they know; it's what is celebrated in today's media.
Jamieson shows how little he understands the motivations or the character of George Bailey when he says that Pottersville represented the 'excitement' George Bailey had been seeking, and had missed. I have watched the movie many times, and I don't read George Bailey that way at all; he wanted travel and adventure, new experiences. But if the 'bright lights' and sleazy flash of Pottersville represent the only kind of excitement worth having, why wouldn't George have simply headed for the nearest center of nightlife and joined the revelry? I understood his desire for excitement to be the excitement of a more wholesome kind: new places, new challenges, a chance to test his wings out in the wider world. The kind of manly adventure that earlier generations of boys often aspired to.
It may be hard for post-Americans to understand that excitement and adventure, let alone happiness, are not to be found in dissipation or thrill-seeking and self-indulgence. But earlier generations knew that. George Bailey, or his real-life counterparts, knew that.
As for the writer's comment that Pottersville would be ''in better financial shape'' than boring old Bedford Falls, is that not the kind of thinking that liberals often attribute to greed-driven capitalist Republicans? The writer's liberal leanings seem apparent, as he seems to think that George Bailey might better have walked away from his hometown and set off to ''find himself', sixties-style, or 're-invented himself', unfettered by family bonds, personal obligations and other such old-fashioned concerns. But I suspect he is more likely one of those libertarians who worships 'free markets' and individual freedom as the two greatest goods in the world.
I know that many very liberal people truly love this film, and it's interesting how conservatives and traditionally-minded people see certain things in it, while liberals see other things. Liberals, of course, see the villain, the rather caricatured Mr. Potter, as the symbol of rampant greed which of course is ''conservatism" in their view. George Bailey, though he owns the Savings & Loan, is a liberal ''good guy'' because he puts the interests of the working classes and noble immigrants, like the Martini family, first. Bailey is the ''little guy'' who is the victim of capitalism, and as such liberals can see him as a sympathetic character and a hero.
On the other hand, conservatives see that the movie presents our traditional Christian Anglo-American ways as good and as the bedrock of our country. I don't see how liberals and other cynics can fail to see that. It is as though they believe that the George Baileys and the all-American small towns just grew out of nowhere, having no basis in our Western Christian heritage.
The cement that held small-town old America together was our shared Christian values and our Anglo-American idea of neighborliness and civic spirit and plain old decency. Destroy that, and you destroy the potential for the kind of community and wholesome living that was the core of old America.
Somehow liberals are unwilling to see this. They think in terms of class struggle, rich versus poor. Along these lines, is Potter merely a cartoon villain, meant to represent capitalism, as liberals think? No; I think he represents greed and avarice, which may be distortions of the reasonable desire to make a profit. His desire for gain is unchecked by any concern for his fellow man; he is selfish and unprincipled. Capitalism per se is not bad, but it can be, if unmoderated by a concern for others, for neighbors, kith, kin, and community. Potter seems bereft of any such feelings. As such, he is a reprehensible person.
George Bailey, on the other hand, is a basically decent and honest man who nonetheless has his dark side, as we see as his life unravels. He is not a goody-two-shoes or a plaster saint. He is capable of selfishness, self-pity, and anger. But ultimately he is redeemed, and it is his concern for his friends, family, and community that testify to his essential good-heartedness.
Overall, the tone of the movie is uplifting and inspiring, and it leaves us with a hopeful feeling about fallen human nature. It is possible to rise above our own self-centered concerns. It is possible to learn to accept the limitations with which life presents us, and to find the good in whatever situation we find ourselves. We all have to play the hand we are dealt, but on the other hand, we can make choices; we need not be victims of circumstance, embittered by life's difficulties. We can love and forgive even the flawed people around us, like George's Uncle Billy.
We can find beauty and fulfillment even in a ''boring'' small town like Bedford Falls.
Now, we find ourselves in a world which overall looks very much like Pottersville, and towns like Bedford Falls are becoming harder and harder to find. It is very easy to be cynical and hardened in this postmodern America, as Jamieson shows us by his article.
The post-American, post-Christian generations have a hard time understanding that you can't undercut the Christian, Anglo-American foundations of this country without destroying the whole edifice, including the things that even liberals recognize as good.
Once you take away our traditional faith and culture, Potter has won; it's all reduced to money, cheap entertainment, and selfish individualism.
Bedford Falls and the people therein were artifacts of a certain place, time and value system. It's no accident that as those values fade, as the traditions and the habits of mind fade, so does the particular kind of 'wonderful life' celebrated in Capra's film.
As I've said before, it's possible to be homesick for the old America, even for those who never experienced it. The fact that many young people, even liberal young people, are moved by "It's a Wonderful Life" shows that perhaps they feel a sense of loss which they fail to recognize.
We might all try to re-create that kind of life in our own individual sphere, but it can't be done in a vacuum, without a congenial world in which traditional ways are once again acknowledged and preserved.