Frank Capra and Ayn Rand aren’t often mentioned together. Yet the cheery director of Capra-corn and the dour novelist who created Objectivism have much in common. Both were immigrants who made their names in Hollywood. Both were screenwriters and employees of the film studio RKO. And during the last half of the 1940s, both created works of enduring cult appeal, Capra with It’s a Wonderful Life and Rand with The Fountainhead.
Capra and Rand were also both masters of sentimentality, a literary form that is foreign to those of us weaned on irony. The inability to appreciate sentimentality leads some critics to dismiss Rand and Capra as amusing but minor talents rather than as gifted storytellers. Yet each produced work that will outshine their more critically acclaimed peers. People will still be reading Rand’s novels long after the works of Sinclair Lewis and Norman Mailer have been forgotten. And Wonderful Life has already earned its place on the short list of great American films.
My purpose, however, is not to defend the genius of these creators but to compare two of their protagonists, The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark and Wonderful Life’s George Bailey.
To anyone familiar with both works it would seem at first glance that the two characters could not be more different. A closer look, however, reveals that they are not only similar but a variation on a common archetype.
Howard Roark, for example, is an idealistic young architect who chooses to “struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his artistic and personal vision‚” by conforming to the needs and demands of the community. In contrast, George Bailey is an idealistic young architect-wannabe who struggles in obscurity because he has chosen to conform to the needs and demands of the community rather than fulfill his artistic and personal vision. (Howard Roark is essentially what George Bailey might have become had he left for college rather than stayed in Bedford Falls.)
While both represent the artistic, ambitious, talented individual who is surrounded by stifling mediocrity, each character’s story unfolds in dramatically different fashion. Rand portrays Roark as a demigod-like hero who refuses to subordinate his self-centered ego for the wishes of society. Capra, in stark contrast, portrays Bailey as an amiable but flawed man who becomes a hero precisely because he has chosen to subordinate his self-centered ego to society.
(Ironically, Rand’s protagonist has become something of a cult figure, an ideal to aspire to, while Capra’s hero, a far darker and complex character, is considered an “everyman.” Such a misreading is laughably absurd. Howard Roarks can be found just about anywhere. Although they may not be as talented as drafting or speechifying, the self-centered libertarian fratboys found on every college campus exemplify Roarkian morality. But while Roarks are all around us the George Baileys are a much harder to find.)
Every Christmas audiences flatter themselves by believing rsarena the message of Wonderful Life is that their own lives are just as worthy, just as noble, just as wonderful‚ as the life of George Bailey. Despite the fact that they left their smalltown communities for the city, put their parents in an assisted living facility and don’t know the names of their next door neighbors, they truly believe that they are just like Capra’s hero.)
But what makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in film is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely for his efforts.
Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. In the end, George is saved from ruin but the rest of life remains essentially the same. By December 26 he’ll wake to find that he’s still a frustrated artist scraping out a meager living in a drafty old house in a one-stoplight town. In fact, all that he has gained is recognition of the value of faith, friends, and community and that this is worth more than anything else he might achieve. Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.
This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most counter-cultural films in the history of cinema. Almost every movie about the individual in society—from Easy Rider to Happy Feet—is based on the premise that self-actualization is the primary purpose of existence. To a society that accepts radical individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic. Surely, the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.
The fans of The Fountainhead—at least those who view Roark as a moral model—are not likely to appreciate Wonderful Life. Indeed, the messages are so antithetical that only a schizophrenic personality could truly appreciate both George Bailey and Howard Roark. For even though they are surprisingly similar characters, when the spell of sentimentalism has faded the contrasts become clear.
Roark, for instance, lives to create inspiring works of architecture but cannot do so without relying on others. When society fails to appreciate his “genius” his egotistical purity leads him to engage in a massive destruction of property. By the end of The Fountainhead Roark is revealed to be an infantile, narcissistic, parasite.
Bailey, on the other hand, has all the markings of a repressed, conformist, patsy. He lives for others (a sentiment that would make Ayn Rand gag) rather than “following his bliss” or even “going Galt.” He compromises everything but his integrity. And yet he discovers that he has all that makes life worth living.
I admire the genius of Capra and Rand. Each has given the world an enticing vision of the role of the individual. But given the choice, I’d much prefer to live in a world with more George Baileys and fewer Howard Roarks.