A wonderful life—revisited
It’s a Wonderful Life, that superb movie from 1946, is like a time capsule of American values once held dear. George Bailey, the hero, is a man who puts civic responsibility ahead of greed. Everything he does is tied to his deep sense of responsibility—to his country, to his community and to his family. His savings-and-loan business struggles because his “business model” allows too much room for simple human decency.
Pitted against George Bailey in the richly imagined town of Bedford Falls is Mr. Potter, a nasty specimen who embodies values easily recognizable in many within our current breed of politicians. He cares about nothing but the bottom line. He measures success by the size of his mansion, and by the way people kowtow to him.
A world dominated by the likes of Mr. Potter is not an easy world for people like George Bailey, and poor George is driven to the point of suicide as a misguided last-ditch way out. He leaps into an icy river to end it all but is saved by a dithering apprentice angel. It is the angel’s job to convince George that his life has made a difference.
And what a difference it has made. Without the George Baileys of this world, life would be far from wonderful. In a vision of what Bedford Falls would have been if George had never been born, the movie audience sees a world divided harshly between the poor and the rich who prey on them. It is a town without pity, where life is “nasty, brutish and short.”
Real-life counterparts for Mr. Potter can be seen, for example, in the Walton family, inheritors of the Wal-Mart fortune. They are worth $84 billion, and they grow richer because benefits once paid by employers are now picked up by taxpayers. These real-life Mr. Potters are rich because of hard hearts and government subsidies in the form of taxpayer relief for employees who are being squeezed so the Waltons can enjoy a few extra billion each year. These five people share $84 billion while their employees go begging. It’s no wonderful life for people down the food chain from that little Arkansas family that has changed the landscape of so many American towns into Pottervilles.
The Walton family isn’t the only bunch bearing a scary similarity to Mr. Potter. These people seem to be everywhere, probably because our values have shifted toward a “get all you can while you can” attitude that sees George Baileys as pitiful losers.
It’s all nasty and crooked and un-American, if the America we cherish is the one represented by George Bailey.
But one thing the movie makes clear is that George Bailey is on the side of the angels, and the angel is on George Bailey’s side, too. Anyone who wants a wonderful life—and that includes the rich politicians who ape the values of Mr. Potter—needs to look to our role models and to our values.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a seasonal reminder of what those values once were and might be again.