It's a Wonderful Life
A Tale of Two Towns
One way of looking at the notion of ideology and film is to see that it insists on a sceptical relationship with images, to see that the apparent intentions of the film need to be looked at from a broader perspective than those intensions. As Susan Hayward proposes, "cinema is an ideological apparatus by nature of its very seamlessness. It renders it invisible, naturalises it. Mainstream or dominant cinema, in Hollywood and elsewhere, puts ideology up on screen." (Key Concepts in Cinema Studies) This is a big claim but one commonly held, yet let's see how it applies to a particular example of classic Hollywood cinema. Late into It's a Wonderful Life, when central character George Bailey is saved by an angel, after George has tried to kill himself by jumping into the river, the angel shows George what the town has become in his absence. George has decided to take his own life on being informed that he is worth more dead than alive; he has a family to support and they can benefit at least from the insurance. The angel illustrates to George why he is much more important alive thanWhiledead, as the town is shown to have become much darker without him. While George wishes he had never been born, the angel shows what would have happened if he hadn't been. When the pair of them go into a bar, a black man plays the piano, the bar owner has a swarthy complexion, and the bar is populated by numerous women dressed like they might be looking for trade. For some this might not seem so bad an ethnically mixed community with women as free as men to while away their time in bars, smoking and drinking, if they so wish. Yet this isn't how director Frank Capra sees it or shows it: the bar is part of a terrible decline that the town would have succumbed to if George had never existed. When the angel shows George around the previously small town, what we now see is a place which has become some sort of amalgam of New Orleans and Place de Clichy, a place of wild jazz and prominent prostitution. Can turning back time, allowing George to live, also allow Pottersville to turn back the clock as well, and return it to the sleepy hamlet, Bedford Falls, that it once was?
It would be quite easy to cherry-pick moments in It's a Wonderful Life, made in 1946, and present the film as a conservative paean to the smallest of small-town values, but Capra's work can usefully be seen within a broader cultural framework, one that can appear quite liberal as long as we keep in mind the film and the director's preoccupations. "The pursuit of happiness is, perhaps, more than any other, the central theme in Capra's work" Jeffrey Richards says. "Happiness is to be found in peace, contentment, the enjoyment of life, above all, freedom from the rat race, the individual asserting himself to escape from the oppressive hand of the forces of Organization." ('Frank Capra and the Cinema of Populism') But to avoid falling into naivety, to avoid taking the film at face value, if we wish to analyse it for its ideological content, we can also usefully be reminded of a comment by Irving Wallace who worked on scripts for the Why We Fight films, documentaries made during WWII and to support the efforts of the Allies. "The real problem was our boss, Frank Capra...He was totally unsophisticated when it came to political thought...He came up with a simple foreign policy towards Japan...the only good Jap is a dead Jap... We can't allow Capra's attitude toward the enemy to be our government's policy in this picture for our troops, because while Capra doesn't understand it, the direction the film is taking is utterly racist." (Cinema: A Critical Dictionary)
To be fair to the scene we have described in the bar we should note that a little earlier in the film we have seen George before his determination to take his own life in the same bar served by the same barman, even if he isn't the owner; the barman is no less swarthy in the earlier scene, yet much more friendly than in the latter one, suggesting that race isn't what matters. Capra was himself born and brought up in Sicily. Yet what about the black piano player who isn't playing in the earlier bar scene; has Capra inserted him into the material as a none too subtle index of the town's deterioration? If one believes it is a little unfair to accuse Capra of categorical racism then that doesn't mean we need to reject the question of race altogether that could it just as easily have been a white man playing the piano? yet we must remember that Capra was very politically unsophisticated. The later bar scene isn't there especially to denigrate blacks, indicate a misogynist attitude to women, or even to show what happens to an immigrant bar owner once he starts to make serious cash: the bar is modestly populated when George is alive; brimming when he returns to see what it has become like in his absence.
It is chiefly to question the value of money as its own end: the bar is about making dollars just as everything else in the town has become about cash now that it is named after the greedy town curmudgeon Potter, who never had people's interests at heart. As Richards says, while Capra's work indicates accumulating wealth is fine, doing so to the detriment of the common man isn't. Richards, quoting Abraham Lincoln, sees Lincoln's words summing up perfectly Capra's worldview. "Republicans are both for the man and the dollar, but in the case of conflict, the man before the dollar." ('Frank Capra and the Cinema of Populism') At the beginning of the thirties, Capra made American Madness, a film about banking produced not long after the Wall Street crash, a crash that the very actor, Sheldon Leonard, who plays the barman in It's a Wonderful Life, was involved in: he was a Wall Street worker who took to acting in the wake of the crisis. Like It's a Wonderful Life, the earlier film makes clear that when money is perceived as more important than people democracy is hopelessly undermined. The scene in the bar from Capra's perspective would unlikely to be there as a racist gesture; it is to show a decent place that is making a fortune out of people's misfortunes. The formerly known Bedford Falls has fallen indeed; as it is now named after the avaricious banker who isn't happy unless everybody owes him a living in the interest they pay.
Though Capra was probably offloading a few personal prejudices in the scenes of the rowdy and chaotic Pottersville, evident when Elliot Stein says the director's autobiography is filled with "passages deploring a host of demons who seem to have taken over the world...: radical lewd lesbians, hedonistic homos, pot-smoking draft card burning wife swappers..." (Cinema: a Critical Dictionary) but that isn't chiefly what the film wants to focus upon. Anyone who plays up the latter comment over the former concerning Lincoln would be emphasising the film's social conservatism and missing out on a far more evident New Deal economic message. This is one that for money to have its proper value it needs to circulate in the economy and not be amassed in a few people's bank accounts, with the latter allowing for little more than trickle-down indenturing. By being in debt to Potter, or renting one of his slum dwellings, people are no longer in control of their lives and the film suggests that this lack of personal freedom manifests itself in a decadent lifestyle. After the pub, George and the angel pass through the expanded town which seems mainly made up of strip bars, clubs and gambling dens. Everybody is irate, impatient and cynical, worn down by a life based on money and a pleasure principle that seems long ago to have lots its pleasure.
An ideological perspective on the film obviously ought to acknowledge that what Capra is presenting as hell on earth looks an awful lot like numerous places which see people perfectly entitled to spend their nights drinking, gambling and sleeping around: that it is part of a liberal capitalism which allows one to live as freely as one wishes. A small-town life where everybody knows everyone, where social restrictions are placed upon the community by the community, so that individualism is secondary to the collective, can seem an awfully restrictive way to live; any ideological viewing of the film should acknowledge that there is potential oppression in George's Bedford Falls' simple ways just as there is decadence in Potter's Pottersville. Indeed, that is how many have read the film, seeing once again a socio-political naivety in Capra's vision: "the reactionary tactic of blaming all social and economic ills, Wallace notes, on one token villain (here Lionel Barrymore in a familiar Scrooge routine) which was irresponsible enough during the Depression, was more dotty than demode by 1946." (Cinema: A Critical Dictionary) It is easy to see Capra's American ideal as an outdated view of the USA, but just as ideology can read a film against the grain and see in it a set of negative values over positive ones (seeing racism and misogyny for example in the negative connotations the film offers in relation to Jazz and women drinking), so one can not only ignore Capra's sentimental optimism about small town life in pursuing a reading of the film that is contrary to its apparent set of priorities, and thus read the film pessimistically, but push far in the other direction and add a bit of revolutionary economic optimism in the context of the film's message. Watching the film shortly after the crash of 2008 one could see what appeared almost a radical work: that rather than focusing on helping the banks, what about focusing on the people? When at the end of the film everyone comes round to George's house to help him out after his uncle misplaces a large sum of money that leaves Georges destitute and liable to end up in jail, it shows that individuals can pool their resources without relying on banks to help or hinder their progress. If by 2008, banks were too big to fail, for It's a Wonderful Life, our fellow citizens needn't be at the mercy of money but the masters of it, seeing monetary value as only as useful as the human value that accompanies it.
Capra's main point would be that the little man can make a difference as long as the little becomes large through collective action. Watching the film one is in no doubt that an appropriate conventional reading of it is the promotion of small-scale capitalism, a populist mindset that would be wary of the big state as readily as of the big banks. But if many critics like Stein were willing to push the film into the reactionary, then is it equally possible for critics to see in it the roots for a broader-based attack on the merits of monetary accumulation? Capitalism is still finally about capital, while It's a Wonderful Life can be viewed as a film about community - the notion of collective action against individual greed, where money matters rather less than the people. It would hardly seem to be a film likely to advocate austerity politics and sees instead that everybody needs a basic standard of living for the community to flourish. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs", Marx famously said but it is quite close to what It's a Wonderful Life says too. Lest this seems too fanciful, none other than the arch-conservative, the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, thought so as well. "The FBI claimed that two of its screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, 'were very close to known Communists and on one occasion in the recent past . . . practically lived with known Communists and were observed eating lunch every day with Communists.'" (Independent) If Capra's film can be used as a representative of all that is conservative, banal and reactionary about small-town life as some critics have suggested, it can also be turned into an even more left-wing work than many might imagine. If the FBI can see a communist sensibility in the film, why can't others? Indeed that is how David R. Shumway views it when he says, "Capra gives us a socialist solution to a capitalist problem, much as the New Deal had done for the country as a whole. Capra himself was a life-long Republican who voted for Roosevelt's opponents. But this scene suggests an acceptance of Roosevelt's methods in the face of economic disaster." Shumway notes that "at the heart of Bedford Falls' economy were locally owned businesses of all sizes. The number of such businesses has consistently fallen since the 1970s, as local banks, factories, corporate Independent)headquarters, and retail stores of all kinds, were taken over, replaced, or closed by national or international corporations." (Politics/Letters, Live)
A popular term in ideological criticism during the seventies was detournement, which can mean a re-routing or a hijacking. In other words, taking something that has one given meaning and finding a way to give it another meaning altogether. One may wish to see in Capra's film a disdain for progress, a disregard for racial minorities and an insistence that women should know their place which ought not to be in bars and strip clubs. There is plenty to suggest that It's a Wonderful Life isn't unproblematic in its ideological representations. Yet at the same time in its ideological socio-economics the film can seem much more radical, a film that doesn't only indicate people are more important than money but that collective action is much more important than solitary trickle-down economics which leaves many people poorer in both capital and spirit. Pottersville is what happens when capital is allowed to accumulate in the hands of the few rather than the many, Bedford Falls is the place where collective action keeps a community together. In the conclusion that can seem appallingly sentimental or politically resonant according to taste, numerous members of the community who have heard of George's straitened circumstances come and hand over their spare cash. Yet this shouldn't be seen as no more than an act of Dickensian charity; is it not, instead, the birth of municipal hope? After all, George is the townsperson who has been building proper housing for the people rather than allow those in the town to live in the slum dwellings Potter rents out. It's a Wonderful Life concludes at least on the idea that we might be entitled to a better existence than the one we have in the 21st-century. Though the film was a box-office failure on its release, its continuing and ongoing success needn't only be put down to its popularity as a great Christmas movie, but also how it can be viewed as a film that challenges assumptions about how we ought to live.
© Tony McKibbin