A little more than a generation ago, as an unintended consequence of the advent of cable television, millions of Americans rediscovered Frank Capra’ s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). (On this phenomenon, see “Talk of the Town”; McDonough.) Since its first national broadcast over NBC on Christmas Eve of 1994, it has won that time slot every year (“Christmas Eve Encore”).

Although ratings points can tell us how many people tuned their televisions to various holiday showings of the film, they do not tell us why people tuned in. Was this program merely there in a passive sense, providing an ambient background for a family gathering? For how many viewers is the network broadcast a conscious kind of ritual involving some level of engagement and reflection? Here again, ratings points—for all their value as tools of modern market research—cannot help us much.

It is the purpose of the Capra/Bailey Project to provide a space for thinking about such qualitative questions. Furthermore, we begin this conversation at a moment of unappreciated and unusual symmetry between our early twenty-first-century American present and the early twentieth-century world, which provides the historical framework within which It’s a Wonderful Life unfolds. We must not forget that, more than seventy years after the film’s first release at the end of 1946 (to lukewarm reviews and box office receipts), millions of Americans have direct personal experience living through a systemic economic crisis, commonly referred to the Great Recession.

Millions of Americans have lost their homes and livelihoods because certain policymakers and institutions did not meet their responsibilities to provide proper oversight and regulation of the economy. What might we learn if we treat It’s a Wonderful Life as a historical document and juxtapose it with the political narratives of the Great Recession?

What Makes a Story Last?

Thurman Arnold, assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (1938–1943)

At its foundation, It’s a Wonderful Life still speaks to us because it is a story classically structured by experts at their craft—a crew of writers (led in the end by director Frank Capra) that at various times included Clifford Odets and Dalton Trumbo along with Philip Van Doren Stern, Frances Goodrich, Jo Swerling and Albert Hackett. These contributors were each astute observers of their social and political surroundings. They understood something that New Deal policymaker, attorney, and anti-trust advocate Thurman Arnold introduced to scholars: that political behavior is heavily influenced by cultural expectations.

Political conduct, according to Arnold, is “a series of parables through which [we] see the world before [us]” (Arnold 333). These mythic narratives thrive not only in the mind of the low information voter but also in the minds of the leaders that they elect. Consider, for example, the popular tendency toward the “personification of the corporation” (Arnold 190). Those familiar with It’s a Wonderful Life will recall one important example of this reduction of reality that was central to that story: how the conflict between monopoly capitalism and democratic capitalism was expressed in the personal conflict between Henry F. Potter, the economic monopolist of Bedford Falls, and the Bailey family.

Writing a little less than a decade before the Potter-Bailey struggle was put on screen, Arnold offered a powerful example of the consequences of such corporate personification for political action. Arnold recalls the reaction of many Americans in late 1936 and early 1937 to economic conflict down to the sit-down strikes— instead of picketing outside the auto plants, workers stayed at their workstations within it—launched by auto workers against the General Motors Corporation:

General Motors workers on strike in Flint, Michigan

So fixed in popular imagination was the belief that General Motors was a big man who ‘owned’ the plant that the public became alarmed over possible dangers to their own homes because of this method of conducting a strike. . . . If General Motors had been pictured . . . exercising the governing power over thousands of people, the right of these people to security in their jobs might have been recognized as somewhat on the same level as the rights of security holders in the corporation (Arnold 191).

 

It is especially important to remember that such metaphorical thinking is not restricted to members of the general public. Historian Ellis Hawley once wrote that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s own understanding of American capitalism “seemed to be about as confused as that of the average man.” FDR, that best-known and well-loved symbol of the New Deal, gave ambiguity to its programmatic meaning because he could never reconcile his deep sympathy for “the problems of small business” with a strong affinity for the views of his uncle Teddy, who had, just a generation earlier, also served as president. Both leaders were drawn to “ideas of a ‘partnership’ between government and the ‘better class’ of businessman” (Hawley 123).

Another close associate of President Roosevelt, a trusted adviser and lifelong friend going back to their days as young reform leaders from the Hudson River Valley, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson found that FDR shared with many voters the tendency “to think of economic matters as personal rather than impersonal forces.” For Roosevelt, the problem of monopoly was simple: “a dark cellar operation in which evil men got together in masks and plotted to do something,” and the solution was equally shorn of complication: Roosevelt “was inclined to think that if he just talked to them and made them see that their course was morally wrong, they would do something about it” (Jackson 119).

 

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