These are the long, dark hours when cis-hetero white patriarchs sit by the hearth chewing over their regrets for the fading year and expectations for the year waiting to be born. I confess, I like Christmas a lot, Hebrew that I am, perhaps the musical and sensual trappings more than the virgin birth business. Something in my mixed Teutonic blood stirs to the paganism of blazing Yule logs, fragrant fir trees, rousing carols, and snow on snow on snow. I hope we can keep these hearty ceremonies… that they are not banished to the same puritanical limbo where the Prairie Home Companion archives were sent to rot.
One surviving old chestnut of the season is the 1946 movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie so thick with gooey holiday sentiment, it’s like bathing in egg nog. It’s larded with messages of good-will-to-all-mankind, of course, but some of the less obvious themes — almost certainly unintended — tell the more interesting story about where America has come from in recent history and where it went. One thing for sure: every year that goes by, the America of It’s a Wonderful Life seems utterly unlike the sordid circus we live in now.
The movie takes place in a town, called Bedford Falls, like many in my corner of the country, upstate New York, or at least the way they used to be: alive, bustling with activity, with several layers of working, middle, and commercial classes employed at real productive work making things, and a thin candy shell of “the rich,” portrayed as unambiguously greedy and wicked — but overwhelmed in numbers by all the other good-hearted townspeople.
The movie depicts an American social structure that no longer exists. It’s both democratic and firmly hierarchical — owing probably to the lingering influence of army life in the recently concluded Second World War. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, the head of an old-style family-owned Savings and Loan bank, a very modest institution dedicate to lending money for new homes. His competitor in town is the wicked old rich banker Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a swindler and thief, who wants to put George out of business.
Bedford Falls is a man’s world. The women in the movie are portrayed as taking care of the “home front” and supporting the male “troops” in the toils of small town commerce — another social holdover from the war years. This depiction of life would surely give a case of the vapors to any post-structuralist college professors who dare to watch the movie.
Now here’s one catch in the story: the main business of George Bailey’s bank is lending money to build the first post-war suburban housing development outside of town, a project called Bailey Park. One of the pivotal scenes concerns the Martini family, immigrants, moving into their new suburban home with great sentimental fanfare. So, what we’re witnessing in that incident is the beginning of the destructive force that will soon blight small town life (and big city life, too) all over the country. Moviegoers in 1946 probably had little intuition of the consequences.
Another catch in the story involves the plot twist in which George Bailey misplaces a large sum of money ($8,000, actually purloined by the wicked villain, Mr. Potter). With his bank facing ruin, George contemplates suicide. He’s saved by his guardian angel, who goes on to show George what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born. It would be called Pottersville. Its Main Street would be bustling with gin mills, the sidewalks full of suspiciously available young ladies, the whole scene a sordid nest of vice and wickedness.
The catch is that Pottersville would have been a much better outcome for American small towns like Bedford Falls than what actually happened. Today, the lovely landscape of upstate New York today is dotted with small towns and even small cities that have absolutely nothing going on in them anymore, and stand in such awful desolation that you’d think a long war was fought here. Much of that is due to the activities of good-hearted suburban developers like George Bailey.
The Americans of 1946 must have had no idea where all this was headed, nor of the coming de-industrialization of the country that had won World War Two, or the massive social changes in the divisions of labor, or the annihilation of several layers of the working and middle classes, or the much greater wickedness of the generations of bankers who followed Henry Potter. It’s a Wonderful Life presents an American scene poised to arc toward tragedy. It’s an excellent lesson in the ironies of history and especially the dangers of getting what you wished for.
Readers may agree: we’ve never seen our country in such a state of ugly division moral confusion, and intellectual disarray. A coherent consensus eludes us. Grievance, resentment, and bitterness boil and sputter everywhere. My Christmas wish is that we might put behind us some of the more idiotic and pointless debates of the past year and get on with tasks that really matter… that will allow us to remain civilized through the hardships to come. That’s how I roll this dark morning, here at the glowing hearth, while the Christmas day ahead, at least, offers some comforting stillness as the snow on snow on snow piles high. And so… to the presents waiting ominously under the twinkling tree.
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