Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life portrays the decent life of a small-town American, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), an everyman who saves his community from an evil Scrooge—Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore)—and who only comes to realize his accomplishments by witnessing what terrors might have occurred had he never lived. George Bailey represents all that is good and decent about America: a family man beloved by his community for his kindness and generosity.
Yet, if there is an oft-undiscerned dark side of America even amid the light, the film quite ably captures that aspect as well—and contrary to popular belief, it is found not solely in the malevolence of Mr. Potter. One sees a dark side represented by George Bailey himself: the optimist, the adventurer, the builder, the man who persistently hates the town that gives him sustenance, who craves nothing else but to get out of Bedford Falls and remake the world. Given its long-standing reputation as a nostalgic look at small-town life in the pre-war period, it is almost shocking to suggest that the film is one of the most potent, if unconscious critiques ever made of the American dream. For George Bailey, in fact, destroys the town that saves him.
Viewers adore It’s a Wonderful Life in part because it portrays what Americans feel they have lost. Among the film’s first scenes is the portrayal of an idyllic Bedford Falls covered in freshly fallen snow, people strolling on sidewalks, a few cars meandering slowly along the streets, numerous small stores stretching down each side of the tree-lined streets. Mr. Gower’s drug store is a place to meet neighbors over a soda or an ice cream. Martini’s bar is somewhere everybody knows your name, a place to spend a few minutes with friends after work before one walks home. It is a picture of an America increasingly unseen: wounded first by Woolworth, then Kmart, then Walmart; mercilessly bled by the automobile; drained of life by subdivisions, interstates, and the suburbs.
George Bailey hates this town. Even as a child, he wanted to escape its limiting clutches, ideally to visit the distant and exotic locales vividly pictured in National Geographic. As he grows, his ambitions change in a significant direction: he craves “to build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities.” The modern city of his dreams is imagined in direct contrast to the enclosure of Bedford Falls: it is to be open, fast, glittering, kaleidoscopic. He craves “to shake off the dust of this crummy little town” to build “airfields, skyscrapers one hundred stories tall, bridges a mile long.”
George represents the vision of post-war America: the ambition to alter the landscape so as to accommodate modern life, to uproot nature and replace it with monuments of human accomplishment, to re-engineer life for mobility and swiftness, one unencumbered by permanence, one no longer limited to a moderate and comprehensible human scale.
George’s great dreams are thwarted by innumerable circumstances of fate and accident and he remains in Bedford Falls. Most of the film portrays a re-telling of various episodes of George’s life for the benefit of a guardian angel—Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers)—who is sent down to earth to attempt to save George during his greatest test.
While George’s grandiose designs are thwarted, he does not cease to be ambitious, and does not abandon the dream of transforming America, even if his field of dreams is narrowed. Rather, his ambitions are channeled into the only available avenue that life and his position now offer: he creates not airfields nor skyscrapers nor modern cities, but remakes Bedford Falls itself.
He creates “Bailey Park,” a modern subdivision of single-family houses, thus allowing hundreds of citizens of Bedford Falls to escape the greedy and malignant clutches of Mr. Potter, who gouges these families in the inferior rental slums of “Pottersville.” George’s efforts are portrayed as altogether praiseworthy, and our instincts to side with him against the brutal and heartless greed of Potter are not misplaced. However, it is worth contrasting “Bailey Park” not only to “Pottersville”—to which it is clearly superior—but also to downtown Bedford Falls, where it does not compare as favorably.
Bedford Falls has an intimate town center and houses with front porches where people leisurely sit and greet passersby. It is a town with a deep sense of place and history. When George’s car crashes into a tree, the owner berates him for the gash he has made: “My great-grandfather planted this tree,” he says. He is the fourth generation to live in his house, and the tree’s presence serves as a living link to his ancestors, a symbol of the stories told about the dead to the living and to the unborn.
The front porch plays an important role in the film: Numerous scenes take place in the intermediate space between home and street. In a discerning essay titled “From Porch to Patio,” Richard H. Thomas notes that the front porch—built especially in order to provide an outdoor space that could be used to cool off during the summer—also served a host of social functions as well: a place of “trivial greetings,” a spot from which an owner could invite a passerby to stop for conversation in an informal setting, a space where courting could take place within earshot of parents, or the elderly could take in the sights and sounds of passing life around them. The porch “facilitated and symbolized a set of social relationships and the strong bond of community feeling which people during the nineteenth century supposed was the way God intended life to be lived.”
By contrast, Bailey Park has no trees, no sidewalks, no porches, but instead wide streets and large yards with garages. Compared to Bedford Falls, the development is pedestrian-hostile, and its daily rhythm will feel devoid of human presence, with the automobile instead displacing the ambulating passerbys. The residents of this modern development are presumably hidden behind the doors of their houses, or, if outside, relaxing in back patios. One doubts that anyone will live in these houses for four generations, much less one. The absence of informal human interaction in Bailey Park stands in gross contrast to the vibrancy of Bedford Falls.
George Bailey’s experiment in progressive living represents a fundamental break from the way of life in Bedford Falls, from a stable and interactive community to a more nuclear and private collection of households who will find in Bailey Park shelter but little else in common.
We learn something more sinister about Bailey Park toward the end of the film. George contemplates suicide after his Uncle has misplaced $8,000 and George comes under a cloud of suspicion. Inspired by George’s lament that it would have been better had he never lived, Clarence grants his wish—he shows what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without the existence of George Bailey. Attempting to comprehend what has happened, George attempts to retrace his steps. He recalls that this awful transformation first occurred when he was at Martini’s bar, and decides to seek out Martini at home. As portrayed earlier in the film, Martini is one of the beneficiaries of George’s assistance when he is able to purchase a home in Bailey Park; however, in the alternate reality without George, the subdivision is never built. Still refusing to believe what has transpired, George makes his way through the forest where Bailey Park would have been, but instead ends in front of the town’s old cemetery outside town. Facing the old gravestones, Clarence asks, “Are you sure Martini’s house is here?” George is dumbfounded: “Yes, it should be.”
The conclusion is so unthinkable that most viewers don’t notice what George acknowledges: Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. Not only does George raze the trees, but he commits an act of sacrilege. He obliterates a sacred symbol of Bedford Fall’s connection with the past, the grave markers of the town’s ancestors. George Bailey’s vision of a modern America eliminates his links with his forebears, covers up the evidence of death, supplies people instead with private retreats of secluded isolation, and all at the expense of an intimate community, in life and in death.
In one of the most moving scenes on film, George’s neighbors, friends, and family come flocking to his house, each contributing what little they can to make up the sum of money George is wrongly suspected of embezzling until a pile of money builds in front of George. Trust runs deep in such a stable community of long-standing relationships: as Uncle Billy exclaims amid the rush of contributors, “they didn’t ask any questions, George. They just heard you were in trouble, and they came from every direction.” George is saved from prison and obloquy, and Clarence earns the wings he has been awaiting.
Despite the charm of the ending, a nagging question lingers, especially when we consider that many of the neighbors who come to George’s rescue are ones who now live in Bailey Park. If the tight-knit community of Bedford Falls makes it possible for George to have built up long-standing trust and commitment with his neighbors over the years, such that they unquestioningly give him money despite the suspicion of embezzlement, will those people who have only known life in Bailey Park be likely to do the same for a neighbor who has hit upon hard times? What of the children of those families in Bailey Park, or George’s children as they move away from the small-town life of Bedford Falls? How much of our current financial crisis was in fact a result of the fundamental unfamiliarity between lenders and borrowers in today’s post-Bailey Park society?
A deep irony pervades It’s a Wonderful Life at the moment of it joyous conclusion: As the developer of an antiseptic suburban subdivision, George Bailey is saved through the kinds of relationships nourished in his town that will be undermined and even precluded in the atomic community he builds as an adult. It is his world that we inhabit today, and our nostalgia for the film should not blind us to the fact that we are not the better for his actions.
Patrick Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies. This article is drawn from a longer essay in Perspectives on Political Science, March 2002. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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