Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life is perhaps the greatest motion picture ever produced. Though it was a flop in its day, the movie is now considered the ultimate Christmas classic, adored by audiences young and old alike.
Capra's masterpiece, however, is about so much more than Christmas. Based on the 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift” by Phillip Van Doren Stern, which itself is partially based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, It’s a Wonderful Life speaks to the same timeless questions that Americans have been grappling with since our country was founded nearly 250 years ago.
It's a Wonderful Life is about the relationship between the individual and the community in the specific context of small-town America. Through the captivating narrative of the life of George Bailey, the film demonstrates that the American ideals of individualism and strong community spirit are not in tension with one another, but rather exist harmoniously when properly understood.
Each Man’s Life Touches So Many Other Lives
The movie takes place on Christmas Eve, 1945, in the cozy little town of Bedford Falls, New York. George, portrayed by James Stewart, is contemplating suicide due to financial difficulties stemming from his business, the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. George nearly ends it all, falsely believing he is “worth more dead than alive” as a result of his life insurance policy. He is prevented from doing so by the angel Clarence, who is sent from heaven in response to the community’s prayers to help George see the folly of his belief.
George is easily dissuaded from the notion that suicide is the answer, but he continues to believe the world would be better off without him. In a moment of anguish, he shouts, “I wish I’d never been born.” Clarence grants him this wish, transporting George and the viewer to the alternate world of “Pottersville.”
Pottersville is what Bedford Falls would have become if George had never been born. Unlike the close-knit community of Bedford Falls, Pottersville is a lonely place, a vicious den of sin, crime, and despair. As George explores Pottersville, he gradually comes to realize how his existence has improved the lives of those he cares about.
For example, in Bedford Falls, Mr. Gower is a successful drugstore owner; in Pottersville, he is a homeless ex-con because George wasn’t there to prevent him from making a catastrophic mistake. In the world where George exists, Harry Bailey earns the Medal of Honor in WWII because he thwarted a kamikaze attack on an American transport ship. In the Pottersville reality, George wasn’t around to save Harry from drowning as a boy, and as a result, “every man on that transport died.” Without George around, numerous characters who were kind, loving, and happy in Bedford Falls, such as Nick the bartender, George’s mother, and his wife Mary, end up as bitter, nasty, and isolated individuals.
Simply through his good-natured existence, George makes life better for everyone around him. While this message alone is enough to make It’s a Wonderful Life one of history’s best pictures, the movie offers so much more.
No Worries, No Obligations, … No Meaning
During his time in Pottersville, George not only realizes the extent to which he has made his community better. He also comes to view his own life in a fundamentally different light. From his earliest days, George dreamed of escaping Bedford Falls and doing “something big and important.” As a boy, he dreamed of going out and exploring the world. As a man, he yearned to “build things…design new buildings—plan modern cities.”
Of course, George never makes it out of Bedford Falls, for every time he gets close, something inevitably holds him back. He doesn’t go to college to save the Building and Loan after his father’s death. He doesn’t go to college a second time to enable his brother Harry to pursue his dream career in scientific research. He even loses his honeymoon to save the Building and Loan and help his neighbors during a bank run.
Indeed, George spent his life trapped in this small town, seemingly always putting others ahead of himself. He was bitter about this for a time, at one point asking Mary, “Why did we have to live here in the first place and stay around this measly, crummy old town?” But upon seeing the horrors of Pottersville, George realizes not only that he positively impacted the lives of those around him, but also that his life, too, is pretty great.
By the end of the film, George has a completely new understanding of his life and how it relates to those around him. His sense of self is not merely determined by how much or little he satisfies his personal wants and desires. Standing in front of a crowd of his neighbors, he comes to understand that his family, friends, business, and community are part of his identity in the same way that his internal thoughts, motivations, and passions are. Thus, by directly and indirectly improving the lives of those he cares about, George made his own life inestimably better than it ever would have been if he had followed the shallow whims of his youth.
George recognizes that what he has—a loving and healthy family, caring and friendly neighbors, and a meaningful and impactful career—is far more valuable than what he lacks. He comes to appreciate the Stoic insight that we cannot control what happens in life, but we always control how we respond.
At the movie’s beginning when the angels are discussing George’s case, Clarence asks his boss if George is sick. The Senior Angel insightfully replies, “No, worse—he’s discouraged.” George didn’t have a choice in the events that kept him from pursuing his dreams. But he did have control over how he saw his life. Thanks to Clarence, he could change his outlook and appreciate how wonderful his life really was.
Some conservatives may be skeptical of the film because it supposedly contains anti-capitalist sentiments. After all, the film’s villain is Henry F. Potter, the “richest and meanest man in the county.” Potter is everything that George is not—avaricious, unfeeling, and detached from those around him.
For It’s a Wonderful Life to be an anti-capitalist film, however, we must consider Potter to be the ideal capitalist. But this Scroogelike businessman is not a true capitalist in any real sense. Rather, he is a corrupt man willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead. After all, the entire plot of the movie is precipitated by Potter illegitimately coming into possession of the Building and Loan’s cash and choosing to use the opportunity to try to destroy his only business rival. It is also worth noting that Potter is the only figure in the movie who turns to the state to solve his problems, repeatedly involving the police and regulators to advance his business interests.
In fact, It’s a Wonderful Life is an enthusiastic endorsement of economic liberty and the virtues of market capitalism. The whole purpose of the Building and Loan, after all, is to help hardworking people buy their own homes. At one point, Martini, the immigrant bar owner, is shown moving out of his rented shack in Potter’s Field and into a new house in Bailey Park. He proudly exclaims, “I own the house. Me, Giuseppe Martini. I own my own house.” In another era, one might have said he’s living the American Dream.
Additionally, the wealthiest man in the movie is not Potter, but Sam Wainwright, who “made a fortune” selling “plastic hoods for planes” to the US army during WWII. The outpouring of support and donations from the townsfolk to save George from bankruptcy and prison is beautifully touching. But it is Sam’s telegram instructing his office to advance $25,000 (the equivalent of nearly $400,000 today) that saves George from jail—we have no way of knowing if the loose change and bills from George’s neighbors would be enough to cover the Building and Loan’s missing money.
That Sam made his fortune helping the allied war effort is not an insignificant detail. It demonstrates how under a thriving free market system, innovative entrepreneurs can become fabulously wealthy while also making a positive contribution to the society that facilitated their success.
A final reason It’s a Wonderful Life is a great movie is that it depicts the virtues of charity. Set in 1946, the film exists in a post-New Deal but pre-Great Society America. The welfare state as we know it today is non-existent, but this hardly seems to affect the residents of Bedford Falls.
At the movie’s beginning, various community members are heard praying for George in his time of trouble. These prayers reach heaven, of course, and Clarence helps George see the error of his outlook.
But it is critical to recognize the desire to help George on the part of the community starts with prayer; it does not end there. Upon learning that George needs money, the town’s reaction is instant and unanimous—they come pouring by the dozens to help their friend in a time of need. No one in Bedford Falls, other than cronyist Potter, goes running to the government to solve their problems. Time and time again, people are shown relying on themselves, their faith, their families, and their community to get through hard times. If that’s not the ideal conservative world, what is?
It’s a Miracle!
Like all great works of art, It’s a Wonderful Life is layered with meaning. Ostensibly about George Bailey’s life and mental transformation, the film is, in fact, a masterful depiction and ringing endorsement of all things America. Through moving storytelling, it demonstrates that individual identity, economic liberty and a communal sense of charity are complimentary, rather than contradictory, notions in the modern world.
At its core, It’s a Wonderful Life shows us that America is a great nation. At a time when many—on the left and right—doubt this, it is crucial to remember that we really do have a wonderful country. And, to paraphrase Clarence, we must always see what a mistake it would be to throw that away.