Much of my political philosophy—maybe too much—springs from the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.
Policy questions are more nuanced and complex than talking heads on cable news suggest, and this film might be dismissed by some, as its villain says, as “sentimental hogwash” and overly simplistic. I see the sentimental Hollywood ending in Frank Capra’s Christmas classic, but I also see something deeper, and it’s inculcated me with civic values that gave birth to my political philosophy.
I read Capra’s autobiography, The Name Above the Title (1971), in which he recounts growing up as an Italian immigrant in Southern California, the youngest of seven children. Capra bluffed his way into the nascent film business and his wit and confidence led him up the ladder.
During the dark days of the Depression, he directed such hits as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), among others.
A thread of populist philosophy runs through the work, and that’s a perspective I find both sensible and dangerous—sensible, because it posits that public policy should rise from and aim to work for “regular folk,” but dangerous because “regular folk” often are easily duped.
In these films, the wealthy are portrayed as either greedy or out of touch, and the savvy, worldly types—often politicians or reporters—are shown as cynical and corrupt. The heroes believe in the American dream and against great odds, come out on top. They also are happy in their simple, humble lives.
The It’s a Wonderful Life story sits squarely on issues we write about in this newspaper. How do we maintain functioning communities in the face of corporate sprawl? How do we make housing in our coastal towns accessible to middle- and working-class families? And on the local and national fronts, how do we avoid being governed by the rich and powerful?
In Capra’s film, housing loans are provided by a small family-owned firm, an alternative to the heartless bank. James Stewart’s George Bailey, confronting wealthy bank executive Mr. Potter who wants kill the building and loan, extols the community benefit.
“Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”
Capra was accused of being a communist, and you could make the case that he saw unfettered capitalism as a threat. He saw himself as a defender of the American system and a patriot. In fact, Capra enlisted during World War II and made an award-winning—and persuasive—series of Why We Fight films, credited with winning widespread support for the U.S. entering the war in Europe.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was shown in a film class I took in college. Gary Cooper plays a folksy country guy who inherits millions and, on coming to the big city, is exploited for laughs by a reporter. The climactic scene has Cooper’s character turning the tables, and in my film class, students—most of whom took the course as an easy elective—cheered it in a somewhat ironic way.
The professor scolded the class, and asked, incredulously, why we didn’t find the film to be pandering and mawkish. So that’s one way to view Capra’s populism.
But for all his sunny sentiment, there was a dark side to Capra’s films, reflecting the dark 1930s. Film critic Nathan Rabin writes that in Mr. Smith, “James Stewart plays the character’s saintliness as a form of derangement; to be that good in such a corrupt world is a form of insanity. The other characters in the film see him as naïve and comically inexperienced, but also more than a little out of his mind. In Capra’s world, innocence falls somewhere between godliness and insanity.”
Late in the film, It’s a Wonderful Life presents a nightmarish vision of what our towns—our worlds—would look like if self-interest were chosen over cooperation, avarice over charity, vulgarity over morality. It recalls what Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York, said about successful public service—it’s like putting a shoulder to a giant millstone as it rolls along, steering it, ever so slightly, in a different direction.
Aside from populism, another thread in Capra’s films is that caring about what happens close to home is an essential democratic value. And that’s always a good place to start.
Earlier this year, Monica Hesse wrote an essay in the Washington Post arguing that George Bailey’s wife Mary is the true hero of It’s a Wonderful Life. Find it and read it.
Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront. He may be reached at email@example.com.