Christmas is not Christmas for me until I watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” at least once during the holiday season. “It’s A Wonderful Life” is one of the great heartwarming films that film director Frank Capra made during the 1930s and 1940s. This film, as is most of Frank Capra’s films, is a paen to the spirit of altruism and community that Capra felt was at the heart of the American spirit. Capra though is not blind to the dark side of this American vision, as he also shows the cost of this altruistic philosophy on the main character of “It’s A Wonderful Life”, George Baily, on his unfulfilled personal dreams and the burdens and personal sacrifices of serving the community and fighting for the greater good. “It’s A Wonderful Life” was made in 1946, when the United States went through a decade and a half period of economic depression and a world war. This period of economic suffering and world conflict has special relevance to the Occupy Wall Street movement, as these protests also reflect the worries of a country going through economic uncertainty at home and hostile forces abroad. “It’s A Wonderful Life” is the last of Frank Capra’s meditations on the American myth, and it has lessons that are relevant to the Occupy Wall Street movement today.
Frank Capra made his best films in the 1930s and 1940s, at a time when the American artists and writers were deeply influenced by the Depression and the suffering of the poor and the homeless. At this time, the art and literary explored the lives of the average American, and began drawing inspiration from the myths, folk tales and folk music of the popular American culture. Painters like Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn, Norman Rockwell and William Gropper began depicting the diversity of American lives, of the farmers, laborers, miners, soda jerks, the taxi cab drivers, the burlesque dancers. Regionalist artist Grant Wood made gentle satires of the American fables, while writers like Zora Neal Hurston began to document the folklore of the South. Poets and writers like Langston Hughes, John Steinbeck and Muriel Rukeyser created poems and fiction that decried the economic hardship of African Americans, migrant farmers, and the working class. Aaron Copland and George Gershwin incorporated folk music and jazz into their compositions to create a more American sound, while folk troubadours like Woody Guthrie described the plight of the working class in lyrics.
It is this context that Frank Capra began to explore the myth of the American common man in his films. Morris Dickstein wrote in his book Dancing In The Dark: A Cultural History Of The Great Depression:
Despite Capra’s Jeffersonian suspicion of the city, the small town is already an anachronism in these films, an idea; it’s where the hero comes from; its values are now embodied in his character, not in any fixed sense of place. This is how Capra brings together the two sides of Hollywood, the mythic and the quotidian, the stellar and the banal. He translated the small town- the idea of an unspoiled America- from a static tintype into flesh and blood, into Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart. No greatness attaches to these figures; they are not Odysseus, not Prince Hamlet, nor were they meant to be. Capra’s heroes are not exceptional men, but only heightened versions of ordinary good men; they may stumble into heroism, but their myth is the 1930s myth of the common man. During a period of social crisis, this populist myth, though politically vague and ambiguous, carried nevertheless a strong political charge. It had a long history in American social criticism and popular protest.
When I first watched Frank Capra’s films, I always assumed that Capra was a New Deal liberal. In fact, though, Capra was a conservative Republican who disliked the New Deal. The Republican Party in the 1930s, though, was different from the Republican Party of today, as it was still influenced by a progressive Republican tradition embodied by Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette that had fought for the civil rights of African Americans, had fought for the regulation of corporations and the breakup of monopolies, and worked to protect the environment. Capra was an open minded artist who collaborated with and was influenced by people of many different opinions. His close friend and frequent screenwriter, Robert Riskin, was a New Deal Democrat. Sidney Buchman, the screenwriter of “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”, was an American communist. The official screenwriters of “It’s A Wonderful Life” were Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, Dalton Trumbo and Dorothy Parker did uncredited work in polishing up the script, with both Trumbo and Parker having leftist political views. Joseph McBride wrote in his book, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success about Capra’s respect for divergent views:
The auteur theory… did not recognize the degree to which a filmmaker such as Capra could be influenced by conflicting points of view and incorporate them into his work, nor the degree to which a filmmaker might be expressing his times as much as he was expressing himself. And though there was much controversy in the 1970s about how much credit Robert Riskin deserved for Capra’s success, not even Riskin’s supporters ever pointed out that the crux of the problem was that Capra and Riskin did not have identical sociopolitical views, or that their films could have been a volatile fusion between two conflicting viewpoints rather than a smooth and unified expression of one man’s ideas. Nor was there any cognizance of the degree to which Capra in the 1930s acted as a relatively passive sounding board for the political views of his diverse brain trust, which included the far-right Myles Connolly, the Roosevelt liberal Jo Swerling, and the left-liberal writer and associate producer Joseph Sistrom…. Capra in the prime of his career liked to surround himself with colleagues who were not yes men, and his ability to listen to and absorb such a range of viewpoints ‘made him an interesting guy’, contributing to the complexity of his films.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” and the best of Capra’s films had both liberal and conservative views. Taken together, the most overriding vision in Capra’s films is a populist view of the world. It’s the world that sees the value of community, where everyone knows their neighbor and helps each in times of need. It is a political vision born of personal relationships, where an empathy for the poor comes from knowing a friend or a family member who is poor. George Baily’s sense of civic responsibility is born out of his friendships with everyone in his town. In this world, financial institutions are good only when they help give average people economic mobility to get out of poverty and improve their lot in life. In Capra’s eyes, financial institutions can do good only when they are connected to the communities whom they are supposed to serve. Capra believes this connectednes to the community prevents financial institutions from the greed and predatory practices that comes from institutions that focus only on creating the greatest profit. In “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Capra contrasts the Bailey Building and Loan Association, which gives loans to the working poor people so they can escape the slums of their town, and the greedy avarice of Mr. Potter’s bank. Morris Dickstein wrote in his book Dancing In The Dark: A Cultural History Of The Great Depression:
Frank Capra was not one of the newly radicalized artist from the 1920s who discovered “the people” because they were now in fashion. He was no tortured intellectual out of Exeter and Harvard like James Agee, more like a Russion populist than an American one, a true Narodnik in love with the salt of the earth. Capra’s feeling for ordinary life is deep and intuitive, whatever his attempts to mythicize it. But gradually, under the influence of the Depression, his fables shifted toward a genuine if vague populist politics. Besides the nostalgic idea of a golden age and the belief in conspiracy, one key notion that sets the populist vision off from Marxism is, in Hofstadter’s words,
“…the idea of a natural harmony of interests among the productive classes. To the Populist mind there was no fundamental conflict between the farmer and the worker, between the toiling people and the small businessman… Predatory behavior existed only because it was initiated and underwritten by a small parasitic minority in the highest places in power… The problems that faced the Populists assumed a delusive simplicity: the victory over injustce, the solution for all social ills, was concentrated in a crusade against a single, relatively small but immensely strong interest, the money power”
The Occupy Wall Street movement seems to share this common vision with “It’s A Wonderful Life”. With its protest of the vast economic inequalities of the 99 percent of American society and the growing concentration of wealth in the 1 percent of the rich, the Occupy movement shares with Frank Capra a deep distrust of the concentration of power and money in a small group or institution. Both assume that concentrating power and wealth into a few hands ultimately leads to corruption and the alienation from community. The encampments in Wall Street, Oakland and across America seem to be attempts to create a community, and the assemblies of the Occupy movement, with it’s attempts at radical democracty and decisionmaking by consensus, show a value in respecting all individual’s voices.
The respect that the Occupy movement has for individuals keeping their individuality within the group is something that is also valued in Capra’s films. In “It’s A Wonderful Life”, “You Can’t Take It With You” and his other films, Capra celebrates the quirky individuals in the community and believes that the differences of each individual are valuable to the community. In Capra’s eyes, an individual doesn’t have to subsume their personalities into some collective groupthink. In fact, though Capra extols the community and the common man, he is also cognizant of the dangers of mob rule. In this, Capra shares a lot with the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers wanted a government that ruled by consent of the governed. But they also created a Constitution with a bill of rights to protect individual and minority rights from a tyranny of the majority.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” is one of my favorite films. Though I don’t agree with everything that the movie extols (I don’t think a person has to sacrifice all of his or her dreams to also serve their community and fight the common good), I do think that the spirit of altruism and community that “It’s A Wonderful Life” represents is a good vision that America should strive for. I share a lot of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s sentiments about economic inequality and keeping financial institutions accountable. Like George Baily, I hope financial institutions focus on ways they can help people in danger of foreclosure, that they help immigrant families climb the ladder to a better life, that they get involved in their community and realize that in the long run, financial institutions are good only when they help give everyone in the community a better way of life, and not when help a small group of people gain as much profit as possible. Here is a quote from a Nicholas D. Kristof article for the October 1, 2011 New York Times:
I don’t share the antimarket sentiments of many of the protesters. Banks are invaluable institutions that, when functioning properly, move capital to its best use and raise living standards. But it’s also true that soaring leverage not only nurtured soaring bank profits in good years, but also soaring risks for the public in bad years.
In effect, the banks socialized risk and privatized profits. Securitizing mortgages, for example, made many bankers wealthy while ultimately leaving governments indebted and citizens homeless.
We’ve seen that inadequately regulated, too-big-to-fail banks can undermine the public interest rather than serve it — and in the last few years, banks got away with murder. It’s infuriating to see bankers who were rescued by taxpayers now moan about regulations intended to prevent the next bail-out. And it’s important that protesters spotlight rising inequality: does it feel right to anyone that the top 1 percent of Americans now possess a greater collective net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent?
…Much of the sloganeering at “Occupy Wall Street” is pretty silly — but so is the self-righteous sloganeering of Wall Street itself. And if a ragtag band of youthful protesters can help bring a dose of accountability and equity to our financial system, more power to them.