You’d think we’d have all picked up on this by now.
But maybe the annual showings, the “tradition” of watching Frank Capra’s masterful Jimmy Stewart/Donna Reed tear-jerker, has drained it of its meaning.
We watch a sentimental black and white melodrama from the postwar exhaustion of 1946 and we miss the film’s core, the quintessence of the Americanism that Italian/Sicilian immigrant Capra preached in such films as this one and “Meet John Doe.”
The meaning of the movie first hit me when “Back to the Future Part II (1989)” dabbled in Capra’s idea of what unscrupulous, greedy, crypto-fascist capitalism’s end game would look like. A divided America, kept poor, drunken, gambling-addicted and beaten-down by the one percent whose interests that served.
Former Labor Secretary, economist and now pundit Robert Reich says he’s made the connection, too.
“As America has moved closer to being an oligarchy — with staggering inequalities of income, wealth, and power not seen in over a century — and closer to Trumpian neofascism (the two moves are connected), “It’s a Wonderful Life” speaks to what’s gone wrong and what must be done to make it right.”
The messages of the film, which premiered over Christmas 75 years ago, are a black and white embodiment of “The American Dream.” That dream is financial security represented at its simplest in home ownership. That dream, as the movie makes clear, isn’t shared by people who don’t want to “share.”
So it comes down to a “broken down old Building and Loan” and a member of a generation that knew group action was the only thing that could make that happen. George Bailey, taking over the family credit union whose members were its security, people who shared that dream and could be made to understand that they shared it — that “united we stand” and get a house and a good life, “divided we fall” and pay rent to the shrinking minority of super rich who thereby “control” us — becomes the Poster Boy for “The Greatest Generation.”
This Financial Times piece points to the tests that formed that “Wonderful Life” generation — a global depression brought on by unregulated stock/securities “gambling” that causes pretty much every global financial meltdown, the rise of fascism thanks to hobbled underclasses being susceptible to “revenge” on whatever “other” fascist leaders con them into blaming — never the rich, entitled and democracy-killers who “break” government and then insist they’re the only ones who can “fix” it.
And here we are again, a violent, intolerant and willfully ignorant minority swelling up its chest to do the bidding the of Mr. Potters/Biffs/Gov. DeSantis/Abbotts/Trumps of this world. Because we can’t remember the last time we were tested this way and have forgotten or never learned the lessons of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”