This is a re-posting for the "It's a Wonderful Life" blog-a-thon at Cinemathematics. It was originally posted in August.
Our recent crisis with the Countrywide mortgage situation (Is it okay to call it a crisis yet? Would it be un-American if I did so? Is Roger Babson in the house?) reminds me of what is actually my favorite aspect of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946).
Commonly regarded as a Christmas movie, perhaps the Christmas movie of all Christmas movies, I’d like to beat the Christmas rush and discuss it now for a different reason. Although angels and family and the spirit of giving and sharing are all wonderful messages to this film, the lesson I like best is about George’s conscience.
Most of the film is not a Christmas miracle, but a flashback of the past decades of this man’s life, where we see that from boyhood he is chained by his conscience into doing the right thing, the noble thing, the self-sacrificing thing even though he really doesn’t want to do it. George, played memorably by James Stewart, is not a saint. He does his good deeds grudgingly, but he does them because he is a person for whom decency and integrity mean more than anything to him, even more than his freedom and personal happiness.
As an adult, George is tied down by his father’s Building and Loan association, a small, shaky business in a small town besieged by the Great Depression, a community held almost entirely in the pocket of the town’s miserly “boss,” Mr. Potter, played with his usual gusto by Lionel Barrymore.
When his father dies, George, rather than see his father’s bank customers and the entire town at the mercy of Mr. Potter, gives up his college plans and sticks with running the old Bailey Bros. Building and Loan because that is where he is needed. He gives his younger brother his college money, regretfully but with manful resignation, because he thinks it is for the greater good.
On the day George is married to Mary, played by Donna Reed, there is an economic crisis and a run on the bank. He gives up his honeymoon, and the money he saved for his honeymoon, to keep the old Building and Loan afloat because his customers need him. No government bail outs for poor George.
His customer’s needs are evidently small, for they are not taking out mortgages for “McMansions,” but for relatively modest boxes on a new suburban subdivision, as George describes it, “a couple of decent rooms and a bath.” Yet they are so proud to own their own homes, and can hardly believe the miracle of it. As Mr. Martini exclaims, “Me! Giuseppe Martini! I own my own house!”
No satellite dishes or plasma TVs, swimming pools or riding lawnmowers. Just a couple of decent rooms and a bath, all their own. The American Dream, or what used to be the American Dream. They get it, thanks to George.
George feels responsible for his community, and when the problem with the books occurs, his community in turn bails him out, and he is shown that the life he regrets was actually well spent. It’s a simple message, and sometimes it’s even true. It is for George. It is also rare that integrity is rewarded, because mostly honor must be its own reward. Perhaps that’s why it is so little seen today. It pays low dividends.
Here is a clip of the run on the bank scene. Unfortunately, it does not include those first frightening moments when George runs to the bank in the rain and we share his sick dread over the ominous scene of the bank closed on a normal business day, with the crowd gathered in a mob. That’s why they used to call periods of economic crisis “panics” because that’s that people did.
And while we’re on the subject of shaky banks and mortgages, for good measure let’s throw in a scene from “Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs” (1935), where Betty has a home mortgage crisis of her own. Her house becomes rapidly devalued in the Great Depression, and she loses her home. Some people feel our fates are ruled by the stars and planets, and that is the case in this silly cartoon as the entire Earth loses its value and the other planets bid on it in a bear market. Betty has no George Bailey to stand by her.
For other great blog posts on "It's a Wonderful Life" please see the blog-a-thon at Cinemathematics. http://cinemathematics.blogspot.com.
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