Watching ‘Wonderful Life’ but not getting it

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James Stewart as George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ before the happy ending is in sight

“How come you like that corny movie?” Swamp Rabbit said after watching the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) for the first time. “I thought you were one of them too-cool-for-school guys.”

I told him Wonderful Life transcends its cornball depiction of small-town life in fictional Bedford Falls. As Robert Reich noted, director Frank Capra used his folksy style to make the movie’s radical message palatable to audiences that had just lived through World War II and had high hopes. He envisioned a future in which average joes would unite to defeat greedy pigs like Mr. Potter, just as they had defeated Hitler and Tojo.

“Good thing Capra ain’t around to see what happened to his big idea,” Swamp Rabbit said. “He’d probably off himself, like George Bailey was gonna do before that angel saved him.”

Ridiculous, I told him. Capra was a great artist who would have used current social conditions to make a movie that would end on the same happy, egalitarian note as the original.

“His movie needs a rewrite,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Peeps today don’t want to defeat the rich; they want to be the rich. They don’t trust do-gooders like Bailey, and they don’t want to live near ’em.”

You exaggerate, I told him. Sure, the post-war economic boom made many Americans complacent. Reagan and his ilk suckered them into believing continued prosperity depended on tax cuts for the rich, deregulation and a weakened social safety net. Neoliberals like Bill Clinton told them some of the same lies. But people know better now. Quality of life among the non-rich has been declining for decades. The gap between rich and poor is as wide as it was in the 1920s.

“Yeah, but most white peeps don’t blame Potter and his gang,” Swamp Rabbit said. “They blame blacks, Mexicans and Muslims. The whites elected Potter president in 2016.”

He showed me his rewrite. The townspeople are split into pro- and anti-Potter factions. Potter fans wear MAGA caps and denounce Bailey as a Communist. They sell their homes to Potter and move into exurban houses they can’t afford rather than work together to make Bedford Falls healthy. Bailey’s wife runs off with Potter. Bailey drowns himself and his angel. The rich get richer, and so on.

I said he was exaggerating again. You can fool some people some of the time, but don’t expect them to keep supporting causes contrary to their own interests.

It took him a while to stop laughing. “Tell that to the Trumpers and the anti-vaxxers. Tell it to them peeps who watched It’s A Wonderful Life a dozen times but still don’t get it.”

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2 Responses to Watching ‘Wonderful Life’ but not getting it

  1. Myra says:

    It’s a Wonderful Life has always been one of my favorite movies. Let’s keep pretending, and not make that rewrite. I’d prefer to hold onto my delusions.


    • oddmanout215 says:

      I’m with you, great movie, but it’s amusing that a lot of viewers just gloss over its radicalism. When it was released, the FBI investigated and concluded it was full of “communist tricks.” Imagine how Republicans would react to its politics if it were rewritten with the same message in our time.


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