Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Final Exam on Success: It's a Wonderful Life

I teach a senior seminar at Brooklyn College. The course concerns success. Here is the final exam. 



George Baily (Jimmy Stewart) has ambitions that sound like Howard Roark's. But Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) has other plans for George. Life events, not Mary, thwart George's ambitions. Moreover, George's motivation to prevent villainous Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) from taking control of the Bailey family's business, a Building and Loan, motivates him to stay in Bedford Falls and prevent its becoming Pottersville.

I have sometimes thought that Potter represents an American brand of totalitarianism. Notice that while George's younger brother Harry goes to war and wins the Congressional Medal of Honor, George stays at home and fights "the Battle of Bedford Falls" because of his bad ear, which he got by saving his brother's life years before.

Questions for your final. What is George Bailey's theory of success? Is there a divergence between what he thinks success is consciously and what he really believes success to be? Is he afraid of success, as Mr. Potter says at one point? Is he conflicted, as between the (a) Hamiltonian view of success, represented by Franklin and The Millionaire Next Door and (b) the Jeffersonian view of success, represented by Thoreau? Clearly he is not identical to Thoreau because of his commitment to his town, but the film presents a tension between materialism (Hamilton) and the small town American way of life (Jefferson). Potter says that George is worth more dead than alive. But Clarence the angel shows George that he's "the richest man in town."

Is Bailey a communitarian version of Howard Roark, who does what he believes (which involves family and community) while sacrificing superficial success? Or is he a coward, who stays at home, "a warped, frustrated young man" as Mr. Potter puts it in the above clip?

What is the role of community in success? Is the small town American community, so important in the 19th century, an impossible ideal today, even in Frank Capra's day (Capra directed this film) a thing of the past?

A few points about the film. The American Film Institute has ranked it the 11th best film of all time and the number one most inspiring film of all time. AFI has ranked Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore (Drew Barrymore's great uncle) the sixth best villain in American film history.

When It's a Wonderful Life was released, it was a bust at the box office. Frank Capra was famous for cornball movies, and some have called his movies "Capra corn." The movie was forgotten, and the studio forgot to renew its copyright. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the television stations realized that there was no copyright, and they played it repeatedly during Christmas season without having to pay the studio. The film caught on through the repeated exposure and has become wildly popular. Many people have seen it so many times that they can't watch it. In Palo Alto, California, there's a movie theater that plays it every Christmas and the audience speaks the lines along with the actors. About ten years ago, the studio realized that although the film's copyright had lapsed, they could copyright the sound track. So it is now only played on NBC twice each year, once on Christmas eve.

Jimmy Stewart, the hero, said before he died that this was his favorite role. The villain, Lionel Barrymore, was confined to a wheel chair in the 1930s because of arthritis and an accident. He had won the Academy Award in 1931. In the 1930s he was famous for playing Scrooge on the radio. This role is a kind of reversal of Scrooge. In "A Christmas Carol" Scrooge is the villain who is shown his past, present and future and then becomes a good guy. In this film the villain, Mr. Potter, does not change but the good guy, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is shown what the world would be without him and realizes that he is really a success, that his is a wonderful life.

Is Clarence the Angel doing George Bailey a favor, or is he feeding George Bailey opium?

1 comment:

Doug Plumb said...

Clarence the angel does Bailey a favour. Courage & wisdom beat subservience, cowardice and comfort every time. But children cannot understand this. Monkeys cannot either. To understand this requires men.

Its been a long time since I saw the movie, but I answer based on your writing here.