Thursday, October 13, 2011

Not So Wonderful a Life

At the risk of the accusation of my being a curmudgeon, a Grinch, overly analytical, and a person who was likely raised on a diet of sour grapes and Castor Oil, what follows is a critique of that hoary old American cinematic Christmas holiday chestnut, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). I have never liked the movie, but have watched it many times, obsessed with the problem of why I did not like It’s a Wonderful Life (IAWL).

In fact, originally, after my first exposure to it, which I think was at the age of twelve, I took as personal exception to it as I did later to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967) or Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump (1994). It is an essay I have wanted to write for years. Other literary tasks postponed it. That I tackle it now is in the way of a birthday present to myself. Also, most stores have already hung up their Christmas decorations and begun stocking Christmas merchandise, although we are still a month away from Thanksgiving. I am writing this far ahead of time, so I can enjoy the Christmas season.

To begin, I left a comment on an Andrew Klavan Pajamas Media article, "Why Left-Wing Artists Should Not All Be Put to Death,” of October 10, 2011:

Mr. Klavan concludes: “To take a strictly leftist or conservative approach to culture is to live half blind. Trust in God and affection for mankind demand, it seems to me, that we allow every life that is not vicious to live itself out in its own way.”

I don’t think it’s profitable to take a leftist-conservative approach to the arts, either, although what he claims is the “conservative” perspective is perplexing. Klavan cites It’s a Wonderful Life and Bonnie & Clyde as excellent films, but they are both vicious. The Stewart movie is better made, and for that reason is more vicious than is the latter, which is pure leftist propaganda that obviously glorifies criminals as “rebels” against the supposedly capitalist establishment (thus the lingering, slow-motion ambush of Bonnie and Clyde), at a time when FDR’s socialist programs were being implemented and which perpetuated the Depression. The Stewart movie, however, glorifies selflessness and the “community” and surrendering one’s ambition to the needs of others, and ends with an eerie “bail-out” of George Bailey and the Bailey Savings & Loan – eerie because it presages the Obama-Democratic economic policy, with everyone “chipping in” to save George from financial ruin and being arrested for embezzlement, malfeasance, and other financial crimes.

So, the conflict is not primarily political, but moral, and as a novelist myself (and as an atheist), I am at odds with both leftist and conservative artists. In strictly moral terms, Mr. Klavan shares the moral values that leftists tout in literature and on the big screen. It also explains why Republicans are ineffectual when going toe-to-toe against Democrats on any issue; the Democrats want a selfless, “community” oriented society NOW, with the “rich” soaked with taxes and industry burdened with onerous regulations, and “essential” services provided free; the Republicans say, yes, that’s fair, but not so fast.

One reader castigated me for being so harsh on IAWL.

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve seen the movie but as I remember, there is one BIG difference between what they did and what Obama does. The people in the movie were coming together to help a neighbor of their own free will, Obama just takes to “help” those he thinks need it more than we do whether we want to or not. As I remember, the banker was set up because he had been helping his neighbors during bad times. He was not making loans knowing they wouldn’t be paid back but was making loans to people he knew would pay them off as soon as they could when bad times turned around.

I replied:

It’s a Wonderful Life is one long ode to altruism and living for others. Every time George Bailey is about to escape Bedford Falls and into the wider world, something keeps him there, and in every instance it’s his feeling that it’s his “duty” to surrender his life to others’ needs. So, he never did what he had dreamed of doing, and the question is open whether or not he was just dreaming and didn’t really mean it, or if he was a true victim of his own mixed premises. His mother is a piece of work, too, literally pushing him in the direction of Mary (the Donna Reed character), a homebody (home from college) whom she knows will probably kill whatever chance he has of escaping. The “evil” Potter character is merely a caricature of capitalism. Most of the principal characters do get to escape Bedford Falls, but return to live banal lives. And the moral of the end of the story – depicting all the town citizens “volunteering” to help George – is that this is what everyone, everywhere is supposed to do. What isn’t depicted is that if they prospered at all, it was at the expense of George’s life and values. So, that’s why I say the film is insidious and vicious.

The other reader had no answer to that.

Let us count the ways George Bailey was betrayed, stymied, or prevented from following his dreams, exhibiting some independence, or realizing his ambition:

• George is about to leave town to spend time on a tramp steamer to “see the world” when his father dies. He stays to save his father’s business, Bailey Savings & Loan, which otherwise will fall into the hands of his father’s nemesis, Henry Potter, the town banker. His brother Harry has just graduated from high school and has won a football scholarship and is leaving town. George agrees, reluctantly, to run the business to keep it out of Potter’s hands.

• Years later Harry Bailey returns from college, a football hero and married to a woman whose father has offered him a job “doing research.” Harry assures George that he’ll run Bailey Savings & Loan while George goes to college. This is doubtful, because Harry’s wife doesn’t look like she would be willing to settle down in Bedford Falls and allow her husband to pass up a chance to work for her father. This conundrum is not depicted or resolved, except by implication.

• George, standing outside his home while everyone else is inside celebrating Harry’s return, looks out of sorts, as though he knows he’s doomed to stay in Bedford Falls by doing the “right thing” and letting Harry accept his father-in-law’s job offer. His mother comes out and tells him Mary Hatch is back from college, too. It’s clear that she wants to marry George off to Mary, and literally pushes him in the direction of Mary’s house. George goes off screen, but returns in a second going in the opposite direction.

• After wandering aimlessly around town (at one point ogling a passing girl, and having a less than inspiring encounter with Violet Bick, the town flapper), George nevertheless gravitates towards Mary’s house, and ends up proposing to her (more or less). Why he should do this is never explained. At the same time, a former Bedford Falls boyhood friend, Sam Wainwright, who did leave town and has attained some kind of success, calls from New York and offers George a chance to run a factory.

• But George by now is emotionally committed to marrying Mary. It is in this same scene that he verbally renounces any ambitions he might have had that would allow him to leave town. His commitment to Mary makes little sense, because the only previous contact between George and Mary, at least what we are shown, was at Harry’s high school dance, during which they fall into the swimming pool beneath the gym dance floor. Walking home, George flirts with Mary. Then Peter Bailey, the father, dies. In the next scenes, George is shown agreeing to stay in town to save the Savings & Loan, but before which he expresses a resolve to leave town, saying to the board of directors, “you can do with this thing what you want.”

• When George and Mary are about to leave on their honeymoon in New York, the stock market has crashed and there is a run on the Savings & Loan. It is George’s decision to go back to the Savings & Loan. He and Mary sacrifice their trip to stop the run, offering their honeymoon money to pay depositors.

• George has some success with the Savings & Loan. Potter offers him a job that will allow him to “see the world” outside of Bedford Falls, a handsome salary, and other perks. George, initially tempted, turns down the offer because, after all, Henry Potter is the villain who probably drove his father to his grave. Potter is depicted as a “greedy businessman” who wants to control the whole town. George, however, is a kind of crusading “community organizer” who has defied Potter. In the meantime, George is settled into married life and has children. He is doomed to stay in Bedford Falls. Family responsibilities, you know.

• World War II does not interrupt George’s life in Bedford Falls. Many of his friends go off to war, but George is passed up by the draft because of his “bum ear,” an injury he sustained when he saved his brother Harry’s life years before in the frozen pond. Harry is now a war hero, being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by the president, and the town is preparing to welcome him home. \

• Uncle Billy, in Potter’s bank, unknowingly gives Henry Potter the Savings & Loan deposit during an episode of braggadocio. Potter does not return it. The money remains missing. George panics, calls Uncle Billy a “drunken old fool.” He goes to Potter for help. Potter gloats and threatens to report him to the authorities. In a state of emergency, George turns against his family, as well. He concludes that his only way out is to commit suicide and let his family collect on an insurance policy.

This is when Clarence the angel intervenes.

So, there is the sequence of events leading up to the miraculous denouement of IAWL

Some correspondents have objected to my critique of IAWL. Their liking of the film is based largely on an emotional response to the ostensive benevolence exhibited in much of the story. One friend suggested that perhaps George Bailey changed his mind about wanting to build bridges and skyscrapers and so on, and decided he would be happier staying in Bedford Falls running the Savings & Loan. Ergo, there is no justification for condemning the movie. But this is a fallacious defense.

One can't judge a fictional character by what he might have done, one can only judge a character by what his creator has shown. Ayn Rand in one of her articles did that with Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, in the opening scene with Keating on the porch, recasting Roark as a naturalistic character to show him a as completely average person who placed value on what others thought, was unsure about what he wanted, respected Keating's opinion of him, and so on.* She demonstrated that the recast Roark would have made the rest of the novel literarily impossible and literally incredible (if she had left the rest of the novel intact).

And, hypothetically, if she had originally stuck with that recasting, and written the novel from that one scene, logically Peter Keating would have emerged as the "hero" (as a champion of pragmatic compromise), and not Roark, because, as she notes, Roark would not have withstood the first crisis that came along and would have caved. The novel would have dispensed with the necessity of a Gail Wynand and Toohey. In fact, it would have dispensed with plot. As for Dominique, if Rand had kept her consistent with her original depiction, she couldn't have fallen in love with Roark and have had her conflict with him, because there wouldn't have been any distinction between Roark and Keating. Hypothetically, by the time Dominique enters the story, there would have been no Roark at all.

But my point here is that while the reader or viewer can project possibilities on a fictional character; one must accept what the artist shows about the character, because that's what the artist has created and intends people to see. One can append one’s own metaphysical value judgments to what an artist has created, but it won’t change the metaphysical fact of the artist’s creation. One can only accept the artist's metaphysical value judgments, and judge for oneself whether or not they're a value.

I’m sure there are artists or art critics, for example, who think that Michelangelo’s statue of David could have used a little more work, say, by turning David’s head a tad, or slightly altering the position of his legs, or mellowing the expression on his face. But they, too, must accept David as Michelangelo created him. (Such “editing” of the David is less horrific than what many so-called artists have done with the image of the statue, such as adding a baseball cap, or boxer’s shorts, or running shoes – those alterations fall into the category of desecration.)

As for George Bailey's marriage to Mary, that whole aspect of the film is a reflection of the common notion that love is "blind" and inexplicable and causeless. I was never able to see any reason why he would want her, and suddenly express that love in her mother's house, in the scene after Harry comes home and pulls a guilt trip on George (the brother has just revealed that he's married and has a great opportunity to "do research" for his father in law -- not in Bedford Falls, either). The brother claims, however, that he'll stay in town and run Bailey Savings & Loan as a kind of implicit favor so George can leave town, but we never see George deciding to stay in town to allow his brother to leave with his wife to work for her father. It just happens.

And what's Mary's conception of an ideal man, someone she'd want to marry? Because we aren't shown much of that, either, we can only conclude that her ideal is a man who selflessly surrenders his life to others in the altruistic tradition and who would never pose a problem to her by being anything other than what he is. Not exactly a Dominique Francon, nor even a Gail Wynand. Given what's shown about George, that's the only conclusion I can arrive at, why Mary would want George and not the clownish "Hee Haw" Sam Wainwright who calls from New York to offer George a chance to leave town. Remember also that during that call, Wainwright derides Bedford Falls and the Bailey Savings & Loan.

I don't think Frank Capra's motives were so innocent. Don't forget the device of Clarence the angel, who shows him Bedford Falls as it would have become if George hadn't been there to save it from Potter. Why it was imperative or necessary for Bedford Falls to become a pit of vice and corruption isn’t explained. It's a pretty dark alternative Bedford Falls, and reveals Capra's estimate of men and the value he placed on living a virtuously altruistic life (which was, according to Capra, necessary to save the town), that without a George Bailey, the townspeople would be naturally miserable and degraded and in thrall to "evil" capitalists like Henry Potter.

Capra’s “alternative” Bedford Falls is a by-the-book, dogmatic, Marxist conception of life under capitalism in a small town in which its savior had never been born.

Everything I've discussed here is based on what Capra showed, and not what I projected his characters might have done otherwise. I must accept Capra's conclusions or evaluations, and not fiddle with them. And I've never accepted Capra's conclusions or his artistry. I can only critique them without attempting to rewrite them.

The benevolent aspect of the film is what I believe most people fall for. It makes viewers feel good. But “feeling good” is not a proper measure or guide to judging whether or not a thing is “good.” And here’s why: The sudden concern of the townspeople about George Bailey’s predicament is an instance of what Rand called “package-dealing.” George has surrendered all his alleged important values (and I stress alleged – no matter how many times I view the film, I’m never quite sure that they are important values to George) in order to allow everyone else in town to attain theirs. That alone was a death sentence. It does not comport at all with another principle Rand articulated: the trader principle.

On “package-dealing,” Rand noted:

[Package-dealing employs] the shabby old gimmick of equating opposites by substituting nonessentials for their essential characteristics, obliterating differences.


“Package-dealing” is the fallacy of failing to discriminate crucial differences. It consists of treating together, as parts of a single conceptual whole or “package,” elements which differ essentially in nature, truth-status, importance or value.

The well-wishing for George by the townspeople and their showering him with money to replace the missing Savings & Loan deposit (stolen by, who else? The evil banker) attempts to obliterate the observable fact, demonstrated throughout the whole film, that George sacrificed his values for theirs, that they are the beneficiaries of that ongoing sacrifice. Add the Christmas spirit of good will to all men to the picture, and the package-dealing is successful.

As for the townspeople “giving back” to George, after he’s “given” so much to them, that’s also a twist on Rand’s idea of package-dealing. It’s the Bill Gates “giving back” morality in reverse.

All together, it’s Hitler in a Santa Claus suit. Or Stalin. Or Obama. I never bought the message that it was better to give than to receive, and never will.

Did Frank Capra know what he was doing? Did he plan every little detail of It’s a Wonderful Life with the intention of fobbing off a package deal? I very much doubt it. There is no such creature as an “evil genius,” only men who are adept at taking advantage of their victims’ ignorance, blindness, fallacies, or faulty premises. Capra, like many other capable directors then and now, was merely a receiver of the culture’s ideas, not an intellectual or an originator of ideas. And the ideas he received but never questioned were largely altruist and collectivist. But being a passive receiver of those ideas doesn’t let him off the hook. Unlike his George Bailey, Capra had the choice to think.

Well, that’s off my chest. Now I can turn back to more important work. Have a nice Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

*See Chapter 7, “Characterization” in The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, ed. by Tore Boeckmann (New York: Plume-Penguin, 2000), pp. 63-65.