A great movie becomes a classic because it informs and inspires not only when released, but also for generations to come. Frank Capra’s film has been a part of every Christmas season since its release at the end of WWII.
The story resonates because it portrays an individual and a community coming together to create a better life for all. Because of its popularity there are continuing efforts to address the film’s relevance today.
The Real Hero: Mary Bailey
Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse argues that Mary Bailey not George, is the actual hero of the story.
Mary deals with the same leaky roof and small-town limitations as her husband with one major difference: She never complains. She doesn’t need an angel named Clarence to descend from heaven and inform her that she’s actually led a wonderful life.
She knows intuitively that wonderful lives are not made by collecting passport stamps or military honors; they are made by investing in the community around you and wallpapering the bejesus out of an old Victorian.
“Why must you torture the children?” she asks George when he takes out his foul work-mood on the family. Why indeed? She’s the one who’s been home all day with a sick toddler and a clanging piano. . .
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: The entire movie celebrates the personal sacrifices of a nice man while ignoring the identical sacrifices of a nice woman. Why? Because “It’s a Wonderful Life” assumes something that society assumed in the 1940s and sometimes continues to assume to this day: A wife is supposed to sacrifice, buck up, make do, slog through. But when the husband does it, the whole town must take note.
Communities With Pottersvilles
Writer Jared Block suggests the theme of home ownership is a critical area on which America is falling short. Here is his interpretation: We’re driving full-speed into Pottersville.
George Bailey’s day-to-day goal is simple:
To help every working family own their own home.
“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, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”
We desperately need more George and Mary Baileys — people of goodwill who serve instead of siphon, who are pro-human instead of market-driven, who knit together the fabric of society instead of tearing it apart.
We also need more people to build Bailey businesses — companies that give instead of take, that contribute instead of extract, that cement communal stability instead of undermining its foundations.
Sadly, homeownership will soon be as out of reach for the middle class as it already is for the working poor. America is not heading toward an idyllic Bailey Park.
I note one organization estimates America needs at least 7 million additional affordable housing units. At the current pace of 110,000 per year, supply will never meet demand.
The Moral Lesson: One Life Makes a Difference
Another observer asserts we need more of George Bailey’s “ministry” in today’s society. The film from his perspective:
George Bailey who dreams of leaving his small town of Bedford Falls, traveling the world, and building bridges and airfields and skyscrapers a hundred stories high. But he never does those things because his father dies, he takes over the Building and Loan, and marries the girl next door.
George carries on a one-man crusade against Potter, a cruel, joyless miser who has milked the townspeople dry, forcing them to pay exorbitant rents to live lives of quiet despair in his broken-down tenements
Eight-thousand dollars meant to square the books of the Building and Loan accidentally end up in the clutches of Potter, causing George to fall foul of the bank examiner.
Only the intervention of a bumbling angel named Clarence saves George from taking his own life. To prove to George the value of his life, Clarence allows him to see what the world would have been like had he never been born.
Without the ministry of the Building and Loan, Bedford Falls becomes the twisted creation of slumlord Potter, a dark, hopeless, soul-crushing world of smoky bars and seedy dance halls, pawn shops and peep shows. As for George’s family, without him there, his mother becomes a bitter old woman, his wife an old maid, his uncle an inmate in an asylum, and his brother, whom George had saved from drowning when he was a boy, a corpse.
One life, George learns, touches so many other lives. Far from a failure, his life was the glue that held together his family, his business, and his community.
The Film and Credit Unions
Some have opined that credit unions are today’s embodiment of Bailey Savings and Loan. Led by idealistic, hard working men and women and overseen by volunteers, all of whom are committed to uplifting their members and communities.
The film’s message shows success earned by overcoming personal, financial, economic and competitive challenges. Every credit union still confronts these today. Including uncaring bank examiners.
The comparison feels relevant for another reason. It celebrates the role of individuals have within a community.
Credit union’s common bond requirement is simply the identification of an existing group which hopes to improve its well-being by working together.
The feeling of “local” is created when users believe something is theirs. It is not just a geographic concept, but also a sense of shared purpose. And there is no more powerful sense of place than when members can own their home.
What makes the film timely is that the same challenges from 1946 exist still for members. The film’s promise has yet to be realized by many.
The spirit of shared effort is still the most powerful coop advantage in a marketplace where competitive dominance is everyone else’s goal.
In the final scene, the people of Bedford Falls gather around Bailey and his family, donating the money to restore the Building and Loan which helped them achieve their own dreams of freedom, independence, and dignity.
The film poses an ongoing question being asked today: It’s a Wonderful Life, but for whom? How credit unions respond to that challenge will determine if they are the true heirs of the film’s spirit.