Reflecting upon Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life!, one can see how the arguably overbearing sentiment and contradictory implications of suburban innocence may have contributed to the film’s initially disappointing critical and commercial evaluation. The film’s main intention, it would seem, is to offer an alternative to post-WWII hopelessness and to reaffirm belief in the American individual. However, in practice, the Whitman-esque approach to both individualism and social unity perhaps exposed its contradictions rather than confirming such ideals.
George Bailey (James Stewart) represents the struggle of both the workingman and the individual as various social, economic and family burdens keep him from achieving his dreams and moving away from the seemingly idyllic small suburban town of Bedford Falls, a town that practically defines him as a character whilst evoking notions of suburban isolation. After a financial disaster on Christmas Eve, George abandons all hope and turns to suicide as an escape from his prison. Before he commits to taking his own life, an angel intervenes and offers George a view of life had he never been born.
It is here that Capra presents us with his vision of the post-war suburban nightmare as Bedford Falls gives way to Pottersville now that the richest and most callous man in town, Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), has filled George’s void and substituted the innocence of the small-town community with his hardened capitalist agenda. With its corporate, neon-tinged aesthetic, it would seem that Pottersville results from the abandonment of family values and small-town business, both of which were staples of the American way of life that were slowly being eroded by the undeniable horrors of war as well the growing industrial, technological and geographical expansion. This could go some way in explaining the retroactive appraisal of the film, as these elements could have been seen as overwhelmingly fresh within the contemporary context.
It’s easy to view Pottersville purely as a nightmare when shot through a film noir color palette that emphasizes the ugliness of strangers in a world where the honest workingman is either dead, insane or a drunk. Yet further probing arguably exposes Bedford Falls as a prison under the façade of a stable community. That is not to say that Bedford Falls served as the real “anti-suburbia” all along, but rather, that the search for personal identity in a stagnant town where everybody seems to know each other would be in vain. George’s main obstacle in cementing his individuality is the small town that seems to hold him back at every turn, further increasing the strain of social responsibility and gradually distorting its wholesome timelessness into overbearing stagnancy.
The film seems to struggle in clarifying which of the depicted universes (Pottersville or Bedford Falls) will prevail as textbook suburbia in regards to seeing the truth in the postcard image and which of the towns best represent the promise of “the American Dream”. Though the ending is well-intentioned and undeniably moving, one can’t help but consider the implications of the way in which paradise is achieved.
Like Back to the Future (1985), the suburban dream family could ultimately be viewed as a financial institution in which unconditional love and happiness equate to fiscal prosperity. Not that the film seeks to promote this, but George’s problems had to be wrapped up and solved somehow and it seems that regaining financial promise was both the most realistic and unavoidable conclusion to the film.
The film’s power and emotional resonance, however, are highlighted in the disregard of such cynical conclusions. Capra would like to leave us thinking that the money was merely a catalyst in restoring the love that had always been there and that a dependency on a sole realist philosophy leaves no room for unadulterated sentiment. As antagonist Henry F. Potter states, “Ideals without common sense can ruin this town” but George Bailey seems to have proven him wrong, as narrative law designates that he should. We are left in a world where good hearts triumph, wealth can be shared and sentiment can overcome cynicism. The film’s unwavering status as a classic maintains hope in these timeless ideals and the prevailing goodness of humanity…even if it was a touch too idealistic for post-war America. Perhaps over the years, movie-going audiences established a necessity to refer or return to an image of innocence as an antidote to the increasing levels of violence and depravity in popular culture. Even if such innocence may never have existed, there is comfort and appreciation in the ability to dream it and share it with others.