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December 23, 2008

It is TOO a wonderful life

Bedford_fallsAnother Christmas, another revisionist take on It's a Wonderful Life. Actually, this one's not half bad, in that it points out the darkness that's too often ignored amidst the film's sugary-sweet (and inaccurate) reputation. But it goes off the rails when the author takes a moment to extol the joys of the altered town that George sees in his vision:

Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future. Think about it: In one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of “It’s a Wonderful Life” manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly.

On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in much better financial shape today. It might well be thriving.

Maybe so -- but would its people be thriving? Let's turn to my favorite Expert on Everything, Dorothy L. Sayers, for a ruling:

We believe that peace and stability are not attainable if considered as static in their nature or pursued as ends in themselves. They are the by-products of a right balance between the individual and the community. This balance is attainable only by a ceaseless activity directed to a real standard of value.

We believe that liberty and equality are not attainable by considering the individual man as a unit in a limited scheme of society (e.g., "economic man," "political man," "the worker," etc.), but only by considering him as a complete personality, capable of self-discipline in a self-disciplined community; the aim of such discipline being the fulfilment of man's whole nature in relation to absolute reality.

--Quoted by Barbara Reynolds in "The Importance of Being Dorothy L. Sayers"

If human beings can be reduced to nothing but "economic man," then Pottersville may well be a dream worth striving for -- but if they have such things as hearts, minds, and souls, then it's nothing but the nightmare vision that Frank Capra intended it to be.

(Image © Liberty Films)

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Benjamin Ady

Wendell gets it wrong about Pottersville for another reason. As it turns out, the current economic situation is hurting casinos, nightclubs et. al. just as much as it's hurting everyone else.

I agree with you--he's mostly right on. When Bailey gives up his honeymoon to save the ailing savings and loan, my lovely Australian wife shouted "Oh--American values are *so* evil! Go on your **** honeymooon, George Bailey!"

I hear what she's saying. It reminds me of the story of the founder of one of the world's largest missionary organizations, Operation Mobilization. George Verwer says that he kind of regrets basically skipping a "traditional honeymoon" in favor of a missions trip with his new bride.

Gina Dalfonzo

Benjamin, I admire your wife's passion and sympathy for a good and decent character like George Bailey, but I feel like I'm missing something. How is it an example of evil American values for a man to give up something he wants in order to help people who are desperate, who might lose everything if he doesn't do it? It very clearly isn't about the business in that scene. It's about the people.

Benjamin Ady


it just touches on the way American "work ethic" goes wrong. There's something to be said, I suppose for being ... driven, in a good cause. Americans are known for being driven--for being hard workers, for working crazy hours, taking less time off, etc. etc.

Even in a good cause this can go too far, in my opinion. One can easily lose sight of what is best in the interest of what is good. It's a taking of too much responsibility. George's honeymoon with his wife *is* more important than George's 'saving' the people of Bedford Falls from Potter et. al.

Doing "smaller" evils in the service of a "greater" good is a warping of our own place in the universe--a making ourselves too large. This is a very human, and perhaps particularly American, thing to do.



Benjamin Ady wrote: "Thoughts?"

Just two, for the moment:

1. It is *Mary* who offers the money for their honeymoon, not George.

2. The point of the movie is that George's life has significance and worth. Had he not existed - had he "never been born" - many, many clearly evil things would have occurred, and many good things would not have occurred. Is it your (and/or your wife's, goodonyer) contention that life actually has much less significance and worth than most Americans think? I would be surprised if that's actually what you're saying, in light of the liberal opinions you've expressed in the past that have so emphasized self-worth and the dignity of the individual.

I do think you're onto something quite important, but I don't think you've yet expressed it in a way that allows for meaningful interchange.

Gina Dalfonzo

I actually wouldn't call George's system of values necessarily American, even though "IAWL" is regarded as one of the quintessential American movies. I think it comes from a source much older than America.


Benjamin Ady

"I do think you're onto something quite important, but I don't think you've yet expressed it in a way that allows for meaningful interchange"

Darnit. That always happens to me =)

I think perhaps Americans overemphasize ... some things to the detriment of other things, and the movie reflects this to some extent. I'm thinking about "work" particularly. Perhaps "industriousness" would be another way to put it. and this perhaps to the detriment of "community", or ... "relationships". Perhaps we emphasize "moving up in the world" (as a community, or as individuals) to the detriment of ... being kind to one another, or perhaps to the detriment of simplicity.

Perhaps it's that old east west divide? I mean I'm guessing it would be somewhat *more* unthinkable to skip your honeymoon to save Pottersville in .... Semitic cultures, or many Asian cultures, than it is in Western cultures.

Lot of generalizations there, but hopefully the thread can still be followed. =)


Much better, Benjamin! Bravo.

I believe "I've got mine, Jack" is a British phrase, not an Australian one, so my apologies to your wife for bringing in the Poms. But that's a counter to your statement that this is an East/West divide. (You wouldn't seriously claim that only Westerners care about their neighbors, would you? CLH and Roberto-of-the-Levant, among others, might quickly beg to differ. And Gina pointed to the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was originally told by a Semite.)

And note that IAWL shows the most businesslike individual, Potter, as the villain - contrasted with George's concern for people; Potter doesn't care about relationships while George does. In fact, it's when George ceases to care about relationships that he is divinely reminded of them, leading to the show's conclusion that relationships trump money.

Indeed, the message of IAWL is that business is not about money or power, but people. In that way I've always felt that it was a retelling of the Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" story, but from the Cratchit perspective. It gives context to the outrage over recent U.S. business abuses.

But to say George and Mary should go on their **** honeymoon is to say they shouldn't care about their neighbors, and should be willing to break off relationship with them. (For the sake of starting their own relationship as husband and wife, to be sure, but still.) George and Mary cared too much about their neighbors to let them become an army of Bob Cratchits serving Potter's Scrooge.

Our family gets our mail at a commercial mailbox store. We'd developed a wonderfully close relationship with the owners over the years, but recently they were forced to sell due to health. The new owners have treated us as mere customers - inconvenient necessities. Same business, same services, but entirely different attitudes. We feel we've gone from the Baileys to the Potters in one abrupt step.

And just to throw some more petrol ;-) on the flames, I'll note that a big concern of mine over expanding government services is that they tend to be so incredibly impersonal as compared to charitable services - far more Potter than Bailey (but driven not by greed, but by job-secure indifference). Government can't provide the relationship that a church can (and wants to do).

Rachel Coleman

I experienced something much like IAWL this fall, after I was diagnosed with a chronic myelin-deteriorating disease. I had to quit work and stay home to recover -- all this after my husband quite unexpectedly lost his job and we had no insurance.

In an astonishing two-month period, the community where I've been a newspaper writer for 15 years raised money, completely paid off our hospital bills and fed us twice a day for a month. Not only did the help keep us afloat in practical terms, the love and prayers were a key component in my ability to find peace and even thankfulness during a dark and frightening time. That in turn has made my recovery remarkably smooth.

If I had not stretched myself to serve as a community journalist for so many years, I doubt the response would have been so immediate and generous. It's not that I am something special; people feel they know me, my family, and that I've gotten to know so many of them by telling their stories over the years.

The "rest of the story" component to this anecdote: the summer we got married, my husband and I postponed our honeymoon for two weeks so that I could cover the Five State Fair in all its heifer-judging, 4H style show glory. Maybe that's corny, but the fair is a big deal in this part of the world.

Sometimes, it pays to put off the honeymoon.

Benjamin Ady


Thank you for sharing your story. It's heartwarming, and as with all good story, leaves me totally "convinced" in a way that mere exposition could never do. You rock.

Steve (SBK)

Greetings all,
(It's good to be 'back'. Was on vacation away from 'computers' for a while there. [Thanks LeeQuod for noting you missed me :P]
Tried to catch up a little on the past month. Did make a note to self of commenting on this thread, and I was surprised there were no comments... good to see there are now, so here goes)

Actually, I don't really have much to say. Dorothy Sayers gets it right. We are not so easily compartmentalized. Wendell Jamieson shows his affection for material wealth above what makes this a wonderful life.
The world (and America) would be a much better place if there were more George Baileys, especially doing battle against the Henry Potters. (Kudos to LeeQuod's 'Christmas Carol' analogies).

No doubt, Benjamin, people misplace their priorities, especially when it comes to work. And no doubt, life would be much easier if we only thought about and cared for ourselves. Sometimes I think you need to be reminded that there is much good in America and not every value they have is wrong (says this Canadian).

Rachel Coleman

Benjamin, thanks for the note. I am still suffering from publication withdrawal and your comment cheered me.

Benjamin Ady

"Sometimes I think you need to be reminded that there is much good in America and not every value they have is wrong (says this Canadian)."

This is so true. It runs in the same vein as sometimes I need to be reminded that there is much good in myself, and not everything about me is horrible. I tend to be inordinately hard on myself, and on whatever ingroup I find myself a part of. This has often led to me being kicked out of the ingroup, which tends to strengthen the self-negativity. Thank you for the reminder =). Balance in all things. I tend to think I'm designed, somehow to address the negative stuff, in order to balance out the excessive positivity, jingoism, etc. That's a bit silly, really. Excessive negativity on one hand is just as bad as jingoism on the other. =)


Benjamin, I've always been thrilled to see your name under "RECENT COMMENTS". Your willingness to contribute here, even when you frequently disagree with what is being said, shows real courage. And when I've believed your comment was incorrect, what you have said has forced me to think rather deeply about what I myself believe, so you've been an enormous benefit to me.

I was extremely impressed by your response to Rachel. You often demonstrate tremendous introspection - a character trait lacking in many who merely *think* they are exceptional. And apparently you've helped that dear lady too. (Imagine being unable to work while you're sick, just as your spouse cannot work, and you have to pay all your medical costs out-of-pocket! Plus, demyelination is a particularly nasty process to endure; my heart goes out as my prayers go up. If all you ever did here was encourage her, Ben - and you've done far more than that, certainly, as I can and have personally attested - you would deserve an extra star on your crown in Heaven.)

And this latest response to SBK (Welcome back, Steve ol' buddy!! I hope you had an excellent sabbatical from here!) proves that you can be inspired, which is helpful when you're going to be In-spired, if you know what I mean.

I'll personally defend your right to stay as part of this particular ingroup, provided you'll let me give you a virtual noogie on occasion as an expression of affection-in-spite-of-our-differences.

And our Faithful Editor is on your side as well, having already told us of her empathy for Eeyore personalities. So hang in there, my friend, and you'll soon see that things are really far worse than you thought. ;-)

Steve (SBK)

Ben and LeeQuod,
Your words are full of grace seasoned with salt. Refreshing and sometimes stinging.
Ben, thanks to your words of openness and humility, I will be able to see you better as a prophet in our midst, "spurring us on toward love and good deeds". Sometimes this saddle gets too comfortable eh? May that 'inner-cynic' never let the status-quo rest.
And of course LeeQuod, sometimes I imagine heaven will be filled with winsome conversation like that you always display.

You are 2 of the reasons I couldn't stay away from this ingroup even if I wanted to.


The author of the piece Gina quoted wrote: "Not only is Pottersville cooler and more fun than Bedford Falls, it also would have had a much, much stronger future."

Having thought about this, I disagree completely. Pottersville is not cooler and more fun. People go into bars only to drown their sorrows instead of socializing. "Losers" like the pharmacist are ridiculed and abused. Police are raiding dance halls and other "fun" spots. Taxicab drivers are bitter men whose wives have left them (and who apparently can only find relationships with women if they're willing to pay money for them, based on the building marquees). Boarding house owners are cold and rude. Cops are willing to shoot a fleeing perp in the back. Decent husbands are not available for beautiful, "oppressively perfect" women librarians. The only employment in town is for a monopoly conglomerate, so wages can't be high or very negotiable. The pleasures of the flesh that the author thinks are "cool" and "fun" seem to be more consolation than compensation for living in a police state of bitter, selfish and self-absorbed people.

And, relevant to PFM, I wonder how many jails and prisons Pottersville would need, at least to hold Violet as she's hauled from the dance hall? Taxes would be high to fund an expanded police force and an expanded set of correctional facilities. And they'd be imposed on people who work for a monopoly where the owner is greedy and hates people. So likely the jails and police would be underfunded, leading to an increased crime rate.

Therefore I can't see Pottersville as being either cool or fun, or having a strong economic future. But Bedford Falls, with a strong community of young and growing families who attend church and support the military, stable housing under construction, and low taxes, looks like a good place for any business to locate or add a facility, something the smart college grads who left would eventually realize.

Rachel Coleman

SBK wrote "people misplace their priorities, especially when it comes to work. And no doubt, life would be much easier if we only thought about and cared for ourselves."

Here we come back to one of Ben's original points, which was a valid one. There's no doubt in my (spectacularly spotted) mind that stress and lack of sleep have, over the years, taken their toll on my body. Since no one can tell me exactly what causes multiple sclerosis, I can't blame newspapering any more than I can blame home schooling or parenting or the stresses of marriage itself.

But -- one of the nicest things about getting sick has been the rediscovery that it's really, really nice to sit still and DO NOTHING. I had kind of forgotten that being, rather than doing, was an option.

Lots to learn, no matter where you are.

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