Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Movies and the 98%: It's a Wonderful Life

I just finished watching It's a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth year (I try to make it a holiday tradition every December), and like Dickens' A Christmas Carol, as heartwarming and inspirational as the film is, the implicit message of the film seems to echo the political campaign we just experienced this year.
This scene was one that really stood out as local tycoon Henry Potter attempts to shut down the Bailey Building and Loan that has housed many working class families in Bedford Falls. With Peter Bailey recently deceased, Potter looks to dissolve the institution during the Great Depression and at a time when Peter Bailey's son George is hoping to finally leave the small hometown that has been confining his dreams for years. As Potter ridicules the idea of decency and fairness, George Bailey speaks up for the values of his father:

Mr. Potter: Peter Bailey was not a business man. That's what killed him. Oh, I don't mean any disrespect to him, God rest his soul. He was a man of high ideals, so-called. But ideals without common sense can ruin this town. Now, you take this loan here to Ernie know, that fellow that sits around all day on his brains in his taxi, you know. I happen to know the bank turned down this loan, but he comes here and we're building him a house worth five thousand dollars. Why?

George Bailey: Well, I handled that, Mr. Potter. You have all the papers there. His salary, insurance. I can personally vouch for his character.

Mr. Potter: A friend of yours.

George Bailey: Yes, sir.

Mr. Potter: You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money. What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas. Now, I say...

George Bailey: Just a minute. Just a... Just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You're right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap penny-ante Building and Loan, I'll never know. But neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was... Why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn't that right, Uncle Billy? He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what's wrong with that?, you are all businessmen here. Doesn't it make them better citizens? Doesn't it make them better customers? said that uh...what'd you say just a minute ago... They, they had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home. Wait! Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they're so old and broken-down that they...Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? 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, it is too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book, he died a much richer man than you'll ever be.

Mr. Potter: I'm not interested in your book. I'm talking about the Building and Loan.

George Bailey: I know very well what you're talking about. You're talking about something you can't get your fingers on, and it's galling you. That's what you're talking about, I know. Well, I, I, I've said too much. I... You're, you're the Board here. You do what you want with this thing. There's j-just one thing more though. This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter.

Writing on Christmas Eve 2012 after a brutal election season, Chris Powell gets to the heart of it:
"Of course this is Capra's metaphor for politics and the world: that there is progress when everyone is given a chance, a little capital and credit; when people play by the rules, look out for each other, and don't take too much more than they need; and that selfishness is the ruin of everything. Something like this -- more or less a policy of helping to make middle-class everyone who aspired to it and would indeed play by the rules, a policy of democratizing capital and credit -- made the United States the most prosperous country and the most successful in elevating the human condition. But for a few decades now the price of obtaining and maintaining those "two decent rooms and a bath" and the middle-class life to go with it has risen as real wages have fallen for most, largely under the pressure of government's unrelenting taxes in the name of services that have not really been rendered, a welfare system that has subsidized what somehow is not permitted to be called the antisocial behavior it is, and a plutocracy that has gained control of both major political parties. There seem to be more people who, if too confused or demoralized to be dangerous, are still closer to being a "rabble" than the country saw even during the Great Depression. Even at its best now Christmas is seldom more than an itinerant charity that, necessary as it may seem, tends to suppress the great political question of the day after Christmas, the question of how things can be organized to ensure that everyone has a good chance to earn his way in decency. But the great joy of Christmas is that the answer has been given, that we are not lost, that the country has been shown the way and can recover it -- that society can work for all, that it really can be a wonderful life if enough selfless people make it a political one."

Amen, Chris. Amen.

No comments: