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.


And:

“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.

9 comments:

Slade Calhoun said...

Thank you for writing this, Mr. Cline. It was so "right on" that it made me laugh. I have always thought this movie to be repugnant, but, perhaps for that reason, lacked the will to analyze why.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ed,

Always great to read your articles.

The idea of giving reminded me of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables where Father Bienvenu protects Jean Valjean from the law for stealing his silverware and even giving him more, while urging him to transfrom from being evil to being good.
However, Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean was a powerful character and Bienvenu thought him to have some value. The difference between that kind of charity and what George Bailey did is that while Bienvenu probably placed more value on helping Jean Valjean achieve his potential than on his silverware(for some people there might be selfish satifaction in charity), George Bailey as you have critiqued in the film IAWL gives up his own values in favor of lesser(alleged)values like father's business, family, etc.

By the way, I just got my Kindle copy of The Daedalus Conpiracy. Is the novel going to be three seperate books? Also eagerly awaiting the first Chess Hanrahan novel.

Prashant.

Anonymous said...

Prashant: Thanks for your remarks. I will soon complete the second and final part of The Daedalus Conspiracy. I happen to be taking a break from it this very moment. The Hanrahan novels are published by Perfect Crime and are available on Amazon. The last in that series will be published in February or March 2012.

Ed

david said...

Interesting analysis - but despite that interpretation, I do very much enjoy IAWL.

Some of my enjoyment of the film is pure nostalgia - appreciation for old films, movie stars, etc. The acting in the film - the dialogue - the decor - is wonderful, each time I watch it.

Another aspect that I appreciate is the benevolence and integrity of many of the characters, notably George - he is a man to be trusted, who does the right thing, etc, and (mostly) a happy person. Yes, he has foregone his dreams (in some ways), but he is still fulfilled by being an integral part of his community.

As noted - your criticisms are very much on-target - but there is still plenty to like about IAWL.

Anonymous said...

Ed,

I grew up watching and liking IAWL but as my philosophical premises changed, I found that I liked it less and less. Now I don't bother watching it.

Your article concretized in every particular my dislike of the movie and why, over time, my emotional response to it has changed.

"You Can't Take it With You" is another Capra film where the altruist mask is much bolder. Add egalitarianism and nihilism to that.

Of particular interest is the straw-man demolishing of free speech oriented around Voltaire's famous mistakenly attributed aphorism, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It takes the form of one character quoting an absurdity from his neighbor and then asking, "Why should I die to defend that?"

I would put "Meet John Doe" in the same category as "You Can't Take it With You."

I still enjoy "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," although if the Silver Knight were as much a bastard as his "businessman" sponsor, the end of the film would have been quite different. There is a great deal of (unintentional?) irony in requiring the remnant virtues of your villain to save your hero.

And I still like "The Farmer's Daughter," (Starring Loretta Young and Joseph Cotton) although it was not directed by Capra, it does, like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" imbibe the spirit of its times and is shot through with package dealing.

One priceless moment in "The Farmer's Daughter" is when, during a political rally that pre-figures Ted Kennedy's nonsense rambling, the butler (Charles Bickford) assures Loretta Young's character that he could get the audience to cheer by shouting "Fish for Sale." She doesn't believe him. So he stands, shouts "Fish for Sale" and gets a roar of applause in return.

c. andrew

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David Hayes said...

Like Ed Cline, I'd like to think that readers of his 2008 post had understood its points well enough that they would not have to write him with objections that would be apparent to the readers from considering events in the film in context with the points made in Cline's post.

Having said that, I noticed a few instances where passing content in the film substantiates a point made in this 2011 post without Mr. Cline having mentioned them. For the benefit of readers who might not have recalled the same scenes I did, I offer my observations here.

Cline write: "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."

There is great relevance here to brother Harry not taking over for George at the Building & Loan, as had been planned while the boys' father was alive. The Board insists that George take over, declaring that any substitute will lead to a decision of dissolving the Building & Loan, leaving Potter the town's only lender. (No one ever talks about looking for a replacement from outside the town or making announcements in the financial profession that an opportunity exists in Bedford Falls.) This is George's punishment for what his father had called his having been "born older" than his brother, i.e., being more mature at the same age.

George had saved money during his employment under his father for George to go to college after his travels. One of the angels states that George gives this money to Harry for Harry to go to college. What more evidence need there be that this film depicts altruism in its protagonist? If audiences get a warm feeling from watching a film, it's from dreaming of someone else caring for them this way, not from picturing themselves doing as the lead character does.

Ed Cline writes: "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."

Irritation in George's tone of voice tells us what decides him not to steer his brother away from the career his in-law opens to him. George speaks to Harry's wife about the research job and hears that Harry is "a whiz at research" and will be taking the first step on a lucrative path. George's tone of voice betrays that he is looking for a weakness in her plans for Harry, but that when one is not admitted, George capitulates.

(comments to be continued)

David Hayes said...

(comments continued from prior remarks)

Ed Cline writes that George's "commitment to Mary makes little sense, because the only previous contact between George and Mary ..." And: Ed Cline write: "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 ... It just happens"

The film offers a reason, but it's not a fitting one for a man of self-esteem, a man who wants to choose the path of his own life.

Mentioned twice in the film is that George's mom had told him that Mary "can help you out with your problems." George doesn't come to this conclusion himself, and it might have been taken to be just someone's say-so, but George throws back onto Mary his mother's overblown estimate of her, loudly tells her "you're supposed to have all the answers!" as though her not stating insightful comments to him was a betrayal by her rather than an instance of his being unreasonable in her expectations of what would transpire between them. This sets it up that he is compelled to make up to her for his boorish behavior, of his sensing his being unmoored, of his assuming his mother has a good sense of what could fulfill his needs because he has failed to attain them for himself. These aren't good reasons for choosing Mary, but rather substitutes for good reasons which George doesn't know enough to reject.

The idea that it worked best for the most people that George gave Mary a stable marriage is more clearly expressed in the story. Perhaps the screenwriters figured that any doubts any audiences had about the George-Mary marriage would evaporate when they saw the nightmarish alternative-reality scenario near the end of the film. Mary is revealed as a spinster made debilitatingly afraid by the stranger who approaches her when she closes the library. The inference I believe was intended to be drawn was that Mary was left single and feeling betrayed when she waited for Sam Wainwright or his equivalent. Sam Wainwright was shown calling her by phone, quipping to George that he was "trying to steal my girl," all the while another woman is pawing him. This connotes that he toys with women and would likely have had no more of a relationship with Mary than attempts to seduce her on his infrequent visits to town.

Frank Capra's attitude may have been: Never mind George's throttled ambitions, look at the fate he saved Mary from.

(comments to be continued)

David Hayes said...

(comments continued from prior remarks--this is the third of three collections of comments by me)

Ed Cline writes: "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."

George obviously harbors a longing for his abandoned desires for a career in bridge-building, because in his outbursts about life's cruelties, when he sees a table-sized toy model of a bridge, he smashes it into bits -- an impulse-dominant moment in which his suppressed desires boil over into emotions which betray the forgotten person who lurks beneath the facade of the reluctant loan agent who almost convinced himself he had accepted the life he fell into.

Ed Cline writes: "I don't think Frank Capra's motives were so innocent. ... 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."

Yes, the story resolves into a worse-case scenario for its alternative world, and I submit it works as drama that can be grasped by most anybody. Subtler differences between Bedford Falls and Pottersville would have been missed by younger and less reasoning viewers. The vice and corruption are overwhelming, but they dramatize that some people will suffer worse consequences from some characteristics under one type of society than they will under another. Violet can string along multiple men in a safe environment without affect on third parties, but when permanent businesses trade in flesh, she will become a pawn in debauchery and her fights with flesh-traders will become a matter for police to resolve. Likewise, the smiling cop of Bedford Falls who hasn't a mind capable of conceptualizing a proper government can become the trigger-happy corrupt cop of Pottersville. Frank Capra doesn't tell us that minds which properly use concepts will prevail over any corrupting influence, but makes his story depict an honorable self-sacrificer having unspoken-of influence on a culture such that the machinations of an avaricious sourpuss are thwarted before they can blossom.

The conceit and major flaw in the story of It's a Wonderful Life is that it contends that a person's being removed from the fabric of a society will cause horrible consequences to result from that absence. (Clarence the angel specifically says to George that when one piece of the puzzle which makes up a community is removed, his absence is felt.) George Bailey, however, was more than just another townsperson. He was an exceptional person who achieves what others did not and could not. The message is supposed to be that anyone's absence would have brought Bedford Falls to Pottersville, but the logical inference of applying the concept to any of the other residents of Bedford Falls does not support that conclusion.