A classic Christmas film or a socialist blueprint for the end of the year?
The holiday season is upon us and every year I end up watching one movie that I can’t get out of my head. Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Let’s dive in!
When you’ve hit rock bottom and you’re staring at your own mortality, much like living in the year 2020, you can ask, what value do you place on yourself as a human being? What is the sum of your experience, your impact on those around you, and on society as a whole?
The movie follows an ambitious, yet selfless man who has touched the lives of countless residents, is weighted down by his inability to achieve his dreams, and whose imminent suicide brings about an angel who shows him what life would have been like if he had never been born. This revelation brings out the kindness of a community on Christmas Eve.
When it was released in 1946, it bombed at the box office, bankrupted the studio Liberty Films, was plagued with on set issues including sweltering filming conditions during the summer heatwave of 1946, and pretty much ended director Frank Capra’s career. But now, almost 80 years later, it is shown everywhere on Christmas. Although today a recognized classic, its star, Jimmy Stewart, was difficult to sell on the idea, at least at first, but then he abandoned all caution and the rest is history!
It was even flagged by the FBI?!
In 1947 the Bureau released a memo stating that the film was a potential “communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” and “this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.” And its potential conspiracy with communist beliefs.
Seemingly the film could serve as a metaphor for Capra’s disdain for the Hollywood studio system, where his artistic ideas were seemingly at the “approval [aka mercy] of the man at the top.”
So, what makes this classic speak to our zeitgeist even (and especially) now during a global pandemic this holiday season? For that we have to look deep into the film’s meaning and how that meaning denotes a better way of living in the 21st century: through communal outreach and shared responsibility through a “socialist” perspective. Let me explain.
When you look at It’s A Wonderful Life, it is more than just a Christmas Story about miracles, it is what we should strive to be as a community. This film teaches us about our own mortality, strengthens communal values, and challenges American individualistic exceptionalism with the idea of compassionate and selfless giving. And subsequently, it is the perfect note to end the year 2020 on.
The film’s protagonist, George Bailey, is the epitome of selflessness. He gives from the moment he is on screen: saving his brother’s life from drowning (a precedent for what Clarence, the angel, knows he will repeat), saving a pharmacist’s reputation, saving the life of a child who could have been poisoned, affecting countless lives squandering under the thumb of a greedy miser in harsh living conditions, giving his brother a college fund for him to go to school, taking over the family business so the community can prosper, giving money from his honeymoon to help the town survive, until the very end where he performs his last deed: helping an angel get his wings.
This film shows the richness of community-based influence over the advancement of personal gain, as evident by the fact that George never makes any profit. His wealth derives from a greater gift of support. In a time where were are debating the effects of health care for all and assisted living…where we find ourselves at the mercy of political and monetary influences that threaten our security, where people are out on the street homeless due to a global pandemic, scrapping for stimulus checks that might never come…now more than ever the impact of this film where a community offers support, mental health, and financial security is something that we should take seriously. It is more than just a film. It is a blueprint for what society is supposed to be.
The film highlights the continuous conflict in us all. Should we sacrifice for the greater good? Psychologically we are supposed to take opportunities for the advancement of ourselves, but what if we lived in a world where we thought of others instead of ourselves?
It’s a Wonderful Life tackles the wealth gap and destruction of small businesses as a result of capitalistic expansion and greed. The FBI is right in that it is taking a hard look at capitalism…and it should.
The parallels are even more relevant now, with our current wealth gap and generational disconnect. Even Mr. Glower’s son dying from influenza and our COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 marks an eerie parallel.
Maybe it’s personal. Maybe the dreamer in me still connects with the grandiose idea that you can pray and wish for so much…to be beaten down by a system that says you are worth less than the paper your name is printed on…only to give us hope for the future.
The value of a man’s life is not in material wealth or money, it is in his community, his neighbors, his friends, and those he loves. The simplicity of compassion is something that we humans crave. It goes deeper into our psyche with the existentialist question: are we alone in this world? Is a guardian angel watching us? The safety of knowing that something out there throughout all of our hardships, that loves us and will help us in times of need. A life jacket for those suffering can be comforting in times of peril.
As a generation, millennials are cynical to the message behind this film and why it impacts us. It is a combination of nostalgia and hope for the future that most of these types of films have instilled in us.
I guess that’s why the effect of George Bailey’s downfall has such an effect on me. The idea that we can have a dream, and work hard to make it come true, yet it forever eludes our reach, has profound meaning for our millennial generation.
However, it is not surprising that many who watch It’s A Wonderful Life now are entrenched in the class warfare the generation before us left behind and therefore lose a sense of hope.
But, I prefer to remain optimistic. Maybe this film can teach us all to become a bit more compassionate this holiday season.
So, what is a life worth? Much more than we will ever know. What I do know is, whenever I hear a bell ring, it’s not just takeout.