Herewith, my eccentric review of everyone’s favorite holiday film, “It’s A Wonderful Life” starring James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore:
Like everyone else, I love this film. While not particularly well received on release, it has become perhaps the most cherished holiday film of all time. Before I get into my thesis, I want to emphasize that. It’s wonderful! Terrific performances, heartwarming, what more could anyone ask?
From here on is the part everyone is going to hate, so stop reading now unless you want something completely different.
“Life” essentially is a battle of philosophies, one represented by too-good-for-this-Earth George Bailey (James Stewart, a career performance), the other by “the meanest man in town,” Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, in perhaps an even greater performance than Stewart’s). Bailey inherits a failing Savings & Loan that lends money to families to realize their dreams, new homes. In the post-war years, that was everyone’s dream, a plot of land with a house and picket fence. Everything George does is pure and good, particularly the extended scenes of him wooing his high school sweetheart, Mary (Donna Reed). So, he is set up as the prototypical hero who helps people realize their dreams and even saves lives (“It’s poison, Mr. Gower!”).
Bailey’s polar antithesis is Mr. Potter. He is old, crabby, crippled, sour, and thinks only of himself. He also happens to run the only other (apparently) bank in town. His plans for total domination (by way of foreclosing on everyone he can) and turning Bedford Falls into “Potterville” are stymied only by Bailey’s out-gunned savings and loan, which operates on a thread so thin it could go out of business at any time. And something happens that may make that happen, but then Bailey’s popularity shows its power….
This juxtaposition of good versus evil mirrors a change that was happening in society. With the good fortune of the U.S. winning World War II, there was abundance and prosperity. Bailey wanted to loosen things up, get the economy moving by lending to everyone. He just wanted to make people happy! How… wonderful! Mr. Potter stood for the old ways. Before loaning, you establish creditworthiness. If someone doesn’t pay their debts, you foreclose. Very simple and tidy. Balancing budgets can be simple, you just need the will, discipline and willingness to be unpopular to do that.
“Life” portrays Mr. Potter’s ways as unremittingly evil. But they are what built the prosperity that Bailey wants to use. Bailey’s philosophy boils down to “just do what people want and makes you popular, and things will work out.” In the end, this very democratic viewpoint wins out. How… wonderful! This is precisely what has happened in society at large. It’s one of the reasons the film has gained in popularity. Rather than make people pay their debts, the trend has been to forgive, roll debt over, find “creative” ways to finance debt using new debt, and grow entitlements because that’s the angelic thing to do. Doing things like Mr. Potter, sending guys to war, foreclosing, that’s the evil old way which we have moved past and must be overcome.
The end result of Bailey’s triumph? Trillion dollar deficits, Europe on the brink of collapse, entitlements grown out of control, a world where the “answer” to debt is just new debt. Nobody wants to be the evil Mr. Potter and actually impose fiscal discipline and hurt people. When politicians do, they get voted out of office. Weak “solutions” are put off into the distant future where they inevitably will be watered down or discarded completely. Economic collapse looms despite the greatest prosperity in history. The end result of being so warm and generous eventually could be economic Armageddon and chaos. Then, nobody would get entitlements and it would be impossible to spend so generously – which, in a decadent Democracy, is perhaps the only way to accomplish that. In the end, looking not just at the present but at future generations, is that really better for people?
Meanwhile, societies that still have internal fiscal discipline, while undemocratic, sit back and accumulate larger and larger surpluses. They are unduly harsh, but don’t have to worry about being popular. Someday, the philosophy of George Bailey will have to dial back closer to that of Mr. Potter or Western society’s debt may strangle it. A balance must be struck. It is not so one-sided as this film would have you believe.
The rule of the angels can have some dire consequences. In a sense, it is selfish. But, the reckoning can be put off for decades down the road, so be generous now and be popular!
This is perhaps the most heart-warming film of all time. But this is where it all started going wrong economically. Try not to see the dark side over your holiday meal.