There’s a detail at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life that’s easy to overlook but is crucial to understanding Frank Capra’s vision of American capitalism and politics: Mr. Potter, the evil banker trying to destroy George Bailey and the Building and Loan, gets to keep George’s money.
The uplift that comes in the end of It’s A Wonderful Life is purely familial and spiritual. The Bailey family is surrounded by the people who care for them–the poor, immigrants, teachers–and together, the community scores a resounding moral victory. But it is not an economic victory.
You know this story, surely. George Bailey dreams of adventure but ends up spending his life stuck in his crummy hometown, fighting a never-ending battle for the people of Bedford Falls. His uncle Billy loses $8,000 just when the auditors arrive for the Building and Loan. Threatened with arrest and jail time, George decides to jump in the river and give his family the insurance money to save them from his debts.
In the end, the Baileys are bailed out by the people that George has spent his life serving. Their donations will keep George out of jail and keep the building and loan operating; and for good measure, the angel Clarence has given George a new perspective on the value of his life, family and work.
That is all moving cinema. The spiritual victory that Capra provides George Bailey powerfully elucidates a moral vision of the United States, its people, and our responsibility to the poor. But it’s hard to imagine that Capra overlooked the financial outcome, that the lost $8,000 that spirals George into despair and suicide remains Mr. Potter’s money to keep. Capra’s narrative doesn’t do any damage to Potter; on the contrary, he’s eight grand richer (today, that’s $99,000, for the record) and still the most powerful man in town. The Bailey’s will remain poor, and George, it seems, will stay and continue to work on behalf of the poor, while Mr. Potter continues his attempt to buy him out or destroy him.
Seventy years after It’s A Wonderful Life, we can predict a future for George Bailey’s fight against the big banks. The outlook doesn’t look good.
Reading It’s A Wonderful Life as a story chronicling the failure of American capitalism may seem a depressing lens to view a Christmas Classic. And such a reading doesn’t easily connect to the popular perception of Frank Capra’s films. For almost a century, Capra has represented the great potential of America, where anyone can make it big, can win a fight against the corrupt powers that be, simply by doing good, and staying faithful. This reputation became so attached to Capra that film historian Ian Freer called him the “embodiment of the American dream.”
And, by every measure, Capra just might embody that story. Capra, you see, was an immigrant. He was born in Sicily, Italy in 1897. His family came to the US when Frank was five, traveling by boat in what Capra would describe as the 13 day worst days of his life. His family moved to Los Angeles, where they lived in the ghetto. His father worked picking fruit; Frank delivered papers.
By 1920 Capra was a naturalized citizen. He began directing silent films a year later, and by the end of the 1930s Capra would be one of Hollywood’s most successful directors. His films were popular at the box office, welcome entertainments during the depression years, and with the Academy; in the span of four years, Capra won two Best Pictures (It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take it With You) and three Best Directing awards (the previous, plus Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Capra went rags-to-riches, just like the American dream promised. And then he made movies that to many viewed as love letters to the nation that offered him the opportunity.
Capra’s cultural identification with the American Dream was nurtured by the films he made. His oeuvre depicts a romantic vision of the United States and its hard working populace fighting for good, a notion that became synonymous with his very name. Roger Ebert, in his obituary for Capra in 1991, put it succinctly: “Capraesque” evoked a world of little guys who stood up against the system, of poor people who insisted on their dignity, of small towns with bedrock values, of government that sometimes balked but almost always did the right thing when the voice of the people was heard.”
Capra’s celebration of American Values in the depression and war years has established him as one of the few early film directors to maintain popularity in the broader cultural imagination. If anything, appreciation for Capra has increased; his most famous movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, fell into obscurity in the decades after its release, rescued and elevated to masterpiece status by a copyright mistake that left it part of public domain, and allowed marketers to create a new Christmas Classic.
This notion of Capra and his work isn’t wrong, per se. But there’s a limitation applied to the pictures he made when they are tucked under soft-glow terms like Capraesque or the American Dream. Something else has always moved parallel with the uplifting Capra story; something that lingers just under the surface of his films that turns a corkscrew in his idyllic America.
That darker something has aged into even sharper focus in recent years, as the United States has returned to an immigration crisis similar to the one that America faced in Capra’s youth. Anti-Italian and anti-Catholic prejudice in the United States was high in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A decade prior to the Capra’s arrived in the US, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans. In 1920, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for murder, despite obvious failures in their trial and international protest. Everyone from the US gov’t to the KKK embraced a fear of Italian residents, that spawned over the political sentiments immigrants would introduce to the US, and fascism rising back in Italy.
Frank Capra worked hard to bury his Italian heritage and assimilate into the Hollywood notion of America. In his films, he achieved that aim through casting and, setting, and story. As a result, Capra’s films appealed to the broadest to American appetites. He built fantasies on the backs of regular American outsiders opposing the system, starring recognizable silver-screen faces like Jean Arthur, Gary Cooper, or up-and-coming awe-shucks midwesterners, notably Jimmy Stewart.
It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You offer the screwball Capra at his sharpest and widely aimed. When Capra turned his filmmaking to government, politics, and economics, though, the American backdrop for his Capraesque fantasies become notably vicious and brutal.
The most directly political film Capra made was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a story about Senate corruption and exploitation of a plebeian nobody. Jeff Smith is a back-woods boy scout in a too small suit, brought to Washington by a political machine–led by the businessman Jim Taylor–that needs to install dimwitted senator to finish up the term of the recently deceased Senator Foley. Smith unexpectedly uncovers a web of graft and corruption in the office of his personal hero, and takes to Senate floor to filibuster the plan until it can be exposed.
The portrait of political misconduct on display in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is jarring to watch, even today. The scenes with the soft-spoken political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) are too believable in their depiction of corruption. At two hours and nine minutes, Mr. Smith is sometimes agonizingly long due to Capra’s willingness to dwell on corrupt political behavior and Jeff Smith’s painful fall from idealism. Just watch Jeff Smith confront political reality, as fed by his hero and mentor, Senator Paine, who explains that politic’s is a “man’s world,”
“I know it’s tough to run head on into facts,” Sen. Paine says. “You have to check your ideals at the door.” Yes, Capra gives ol’ Jeff Smith the victory in the end, after two hours and eight minutes spent painting the US system of governance as a machine of power, corruption and graft. In Mr. Smith, Capra expresses tru wonder in the eyes of Jeff Smith; an immigrant’s vision of a promised land, adopted wholly on faith and without reservation. When Jeff arrives in Washington, D.C., his passion for his nation overwhelms him, and he leaves his responsibility to visit monuments to heroes of American history, finally landing at the Lincoln Memorial, watching as Lincoln’s words are read by a child and heard by an elderly African American, in an iconic moment of American political cinema.
A similar political fairytale is present in Meet John Doe, Capra’s 1940 film about a pissed off journalist named Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck), who is forced to write one last piece after her firing. In anger, she writes a fake news article about a unemployed common citizen–John Doe–who plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. The article creates an outpouring of sympathy, and becomes the basis of a political movement around “being a better neighbor”. The attention forces the paper’s owner and Mitchell to hire a homeless man named John Willoughby to play the part of John Doe (Gary Cooper).
The ruse is being investigated by a rival paper, and the eventual exposure of the John Doe Philosophy as a fake leads the real Willoughby to the same place the fake John Doe started: contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. John Doe lives; in the last moments of the film his suicide is thwarted and the John Doe movement lives on; but, much in the manner of Mr. Smith and It’s a Wonderful Life, the victory of the John Doe movement comes only after a two hours of undercutting the spirit the movement intends to carry on.
If Mr. Smith is a picture of Capraeque politics, Meet John Doe goes looks at the press and the poor. Capra’s depiction of the press in Meet John Doe follows closely to his vision of the politics in Mr. Smith. And in both, the actor Edward Arnold dutifully carries the load of corrupt America. In Doe, Arnold plays the publisher of the newspaper who is cashing in on the John Doe Movement and in turn, exploiting a homeless man and the people he has inspired, for profit.
The pooor in Doe are given the dignity of expression Capra often provided his outsiers. In a memorable monologue, a homeless man describes the peace of poverty–everybody leaves you alone–and the daming nature of wealth. The scene is ironic, coming from the formerly poor Capra, but it’s also a heartfelt expression of a post-depression, pre-war moment in American life, a moment of distinct class consciousness.
Suicide on Christmas just happens to be the instigating event of Capra’s most beloved film. It’s A Wonderful Life, which the director made six years after Meet John Doe and would be his last major studio film. The first film Capra made after his time making propaganda films for the US Army, It’s A Wonderful Life creates the darkest Capra landscape of all his films. Lionel Barrymore’s work as Mr. Potter stands today as a symbol of the terrible power of American capitalism, pushing a working class hero–Bailey has dedicated his life to building homes for immigrants–to commit suicide.
That Capra provides no economic or social rebuke of Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life smarts, a little. The outsiders in these three films win because in fairytales, the heroes win. But the world they live in, the America of Capra’s cinematic vision, leaves only a moment to taste victory, the rest is scrapping for dignity and a day’s wage.
These are the victories imagined by the embodiment of the American Dream. Jeff Smith, collapsed on the floor, finally notching a victory against the corrupt politicians in DC; John Doe, convinced not to kill himself by the sustaining power of a good neighbors movement; and George Bailey, who wins the right not to go to prison and to love his family fresh once more, all while leaving Mr. Potter in no worse circumstances than he started.
Capra’s capacity to move audiences with political fairytales managed to mask the underlying construct of Capra’s worldview: that the poor outsiders in America are waging a constant battle against a system of corruption and power. In Capra’s fictional America, the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, are able to taste small victories from the villains of American Capitalism and Politics. But as an immigrant, hiding his Italian heritage and facing down another World War, Capra’s vision of American promise was understandably dark: nobody wins riches or celebrity, only the right to continue fighting with a newly restored capacity of spirit and humanity.
That darkness lives just under the optimism and hopefulness that has become designated Capraesque, and it is this tonal complexity that makes Capra’s work, these three film’s especially, so powerful in the 21st century.
What we seem to have forgot was that Capra’s fantasies were fiction, but the America that Capra put on film was not. Mr. Smith, Meet John Doe, It’s A Wonderful Life, these are all immigrant films. They are imbued with the hope of of a better life in America. Capra himself experienced that hope, and potrays the journey with sincerity. But he is not, today at least, sentimentalism. The heroes of these films are panic-stricken and manic; their defeat is palpable precisely because everything they have depends on victory. To lose for Bailey or Willoughby means death, or jail. For Jeff Smith, it means letting down a generation of children who admire him.
Today, Capra’s films surge with electricity. They are shots fired at a nation that need not live up to the ideals captured by a term like Capraesque. And they hit their mark.
Capra’s vision became unpopular in America, culminating in the box-office failure of It’s A Wonderful Life. Post-war America was prosperous, positive and booming. The America depicted in Capra’s stories of the little guy v. corruption must surely have been a downer for a nation that was booming into cars, sububs, and commercialism. How can a culture accomodate Frank Capra, whose heroes experienced political and spiritual victories, when it’s heart is set on more kids, more space, more cars, more roads, more money?
At some point between their creation and today, the immigrant nature of Capra’s films become lost, and the political fantasies became part of the American mythos. Audiences lost the beat of Capra, that nobody from nowhere can take down the system, and turned it into a mainstream of political concept of championing the outsider. Americans decided that, rather than enjoying the escape of Jimmy Stewart battling against the big banks or the corruption in the halls of government, we wanted that fairytale to be real.
And in perhaps the greatest irony of the Capra legacy, the mantle of the political outsider who has vowed to fight for the little guy is now worn by a billionaire TV celebrity. The America that voted for Donald Trump mirrors the Capra’s America in one crucial way: both faced a crisis of immigration that resulted in racism and denigration of whole communities in America.
Were one to look for a powerful, wealthy, anti-immigrant Capra creation, the parallel is easy to find. Mr. Potter, the wealthy business man who would own all the buildings in Bedford Falls, evict the immigrants in the shanty towns, and turn the town over to its darkest impulses. Yet Donald Trump, somehow, convinced voters that he was the outsider we needed for a new immigration crisis, and in doing so he pushed the political outsider myth to its breaking point; fashioning himself a hero for the little guy, ready to do battle against the unruly snakes running our government. He turned the outsider position against the very group that gave us Capra in the first place: immigrants.
The films of Frank Capra, complex and rich, offer a look into both parts of our American identity. On the one hand, Capra creates mythic tales of the little guy, the outsider, who can face down powerful opponents and come out alive and victorious. Underneath those heroes is a vicious and brutal system, run by robber barons and corrupt politicians who seek to harm the innocent, the poor, and the immigrants.
The fairytale is powerful: who doesn’t want to believe that a man like George Bailey could stand firm against a powerful force like Mr. Potter. Somehow, that myth might have contributed to the very thing it warned against: the election of Donald Trump.