I'm up early this Christmas morning waiting for my sleep-deprived family to wake up and came across this article by Rich Cohen in Salon. He has a somewhat different but I think intriguing angle on Capra's famous Christmas film. The idea that It's a Wonderful Life is sentimental swill is nonsense according to Cohen--the real story is about Dark America.
I do not think the hidden message vanishes when the movie goes Hollywood and happy. I believe the resolution of the darker movie is, in fact, still there, wrapped around the happy ending of the classic. Look again at the closing frames -- shots of Jimmy Stewart staring at his friends. In most, he's joyful. But in a few, he's terrified. As I said, this is a terrifying movie. An hour earlier George was ready to kill himself. He has now returned from a death experience. He was among the unborn, had crossed over like Dante's hero, had seen this world from beyond the veil. In those frames -- "The Night Journey of George Bailey" -- I don't think he's seeing the world that would exist had he never been born. I think he's seeing the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.
George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn't know it. Because he was seeing the world through his eyes -- not as it was, but as he was: honest and fair. But on "The Night Journey," George is nothing and nobody. When the angel took him out of his life, he took him out of his consciousness, out from behind his eyes. It was only then that he saw America. Bedford Falls was the fantasy. Pottersville is where we live. If you don't believe me, examine the dystopia of the Capra movie -- the nighttime world of neon bars and drunks and showgirl floozies. Does Bedford Falls feel more like the place you live, or does Pottersville? I live in a place that looks very much like Bedford Falls, but after 10 minutes in line at the bank or in the locker room where the squirts are changing for hockey I know I'm in Pottersville.
I'm betting this was as much the case in Capra's time as it is in our own. He loved America but was watching the triumph of Pottersville. That's why, in the last scene, George looks at his friends with terror. He's happy to be alive, but he's disillusioned, wised up in just the worst way. He finally knows the world as it really is, what his friends are capable of, the dark potential coiled in each of them. His wife is a spinster in Pottersville because, if she's not with George, she cannot be anything. She's just one of two characters who are, in fact, the same in both worlds, the other being Mr. Potter. Everyone else is two-faced, masked. Simply put, George has been cursed with knowledge, shown the truth of the world -- seen hidden things. It's the sort of vision that makes a person go insane.
I've written frequently about Capra's America, and my point has been that he sees the dark side of the country with very clear eyes. But Capra understood and loved the idealistic American narrative, and he wrote stories, I think very powerful stories, designed to remind us about and to affirm that narrative. The dark side is never the whole story, no matter how dark it gets.
The ending works for me. It has a power that cannot be dismissed as sentimental. It works not because it's a realistic depiction about what would have likely happened. There's nothing realistic about this story from beginning to end. It's a symbolic story, a parable. It's like the biblical stories of Abraham's barren, old wife giving birth to a son, to the woman of Zareptha whose jar of flour never empties, or the story of the Loaves and Fishes--and to the story of Christmas. They all point to this superabundance, this plenitude that doesn't exist in the ordinary world, but seeks to burst into it if it were only given a chance. The ending points us not to the world as it exists but to hidden truths and to hidden possibilities. But I think you need a measure of "second naivete" to see how the story works on this level. People who don't have it must see it as sentimental because it seems exaggerated and impossible.
So Cohen is right; the people of Bedford Falls are two faced in the sense that there are two possibilities open to them, either to be mean or to be generous and decent. As with all things human, it's never one or the other--it's both. So yes we all live in Pottersville--we always have, but tha't not the only possibility. The story's imaginative depiction of the possibility for collective goodness and decency is also there, and it resonates with whatever in us longs for it. If we are so jaded that we cannot believe in the possibility of it, then we can never do the work to realize it. As the blog's Niebuhr epigraph above says, "for the vision of a just society is an impossible one, which can be approximated only by those who do not regard it as impossible."
And isn't George's story precisely the story of his longing for that decent world, his working for it, and ultimately his recognizing that in so many ways it had been "approximated" without his knowing it. The story manifests what otherwise lies hidden--not just for George, but for all of us. In real life we don't get to see what George sees in the story; we need a second naivete to keep working for the possible while everything around us tells us it's impossible.
This movie is more about such impossible possibilities than it is about what we are in fact. We must never think that we are incapable of becoming a society as ugly and mean as any in history--there is no American exceptionalism in that regard. But neither should we forget that we are capable of the decency and generosity that we see in George's "two-faced" neighbors at the end of the film.
Peter Maurin, with Dorothy Day the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, said that he didn't want a socialist utopia; he just wanted a society in which it was easier for people to be good. I think this was Capra's vision of America as well. It's certainly mine.