“Frank Capra died yesterday.”

“Just died? I thought he’s been dead for years.”

“Well–now maybe that damn film of his will die too. How many times are they gonna put Wonderful Life on TV this Christmas? Twenty times? Thirty?” –Three-part conversation in a coffeehouse, September 4, 1991

Yes, he was 94 when he died, a cranky old Reaganite who liked to grouse about how things weren’t as good as they used to be, especially movies, and who wants to see all that sex&violence and why don’t they make wholesome films anymore? . . . It’s a Wonderful Life, which everyone from Capra himself to Jimmy Stewart to film critics agree was his masterpiece, was based on a Christmas card pamphlet called “The Greatest Gift.” How Norman Rockwellish can you get?

Nonetheless I think Capra was a great artist. Especially in It’s a Wonderful Life he expressed some deep truths about America and Americans–maybe some truths about ourselves that we don’t even want to know.

“Yes, George, you have had a wonderful life,” pronounces Clarence, the apprentice angel who’s been sent from heaven to try to save George Bailey from suicide and despair.


George, as we all know, has lived his entire life in Bedford Falls, although his lifelong dream has been to escape that little burg and explore the world. He’s worked all his adult life in the Bailey Building & Loan, although his ambition was always to be an architect. He never got to go to college–stepped aside for the sake of his brother, for the sake of the bank. He didn’t really want to get married, either, but circumstances and Mary Hatch (significant name–she’s had her eye on him since they were both kids) conspired to rope him into it. Now he’s living with Mary and three kids in a refurbished house he once called a drafty old barn and swore he’d never be caught dead in. Today–Christmas Eve–dotty old Uncle Billy has mislaid $8,000 of the bank’s money, an amount neither George nor Billy can possibly make up, and the bank examiner has just come to look at the books. George, his life’s dreams unfulfilled and facing the probability of ruin and disgrace, throws himself off a bridge, determined to end it all.

It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946. Three years later an American postwar classic, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, was staged in New York. Miller’s bleak modern tragedy seemingly expresses the very antithesis of Capra’s optimism–but think about it: less than a hair’s breadth, in fact, separates George Bailey from salesman Willy Loman. Each is a small-time businessman faced with financial failure; each, forced to the realization that his dreams have been illusions, decides to kill himself.

George is saved from suicide only by God and his heavenly host–literally a deus ex machina. Clarence the apprentice angel comes down and rescues George, then persuades him that life is worth living by showing him what things would have been like if he had, as he now wishes, “never been born.” Without George the Bailey Building & Loan would have been swallowed up by the town’s bigger bank, the one owned by Potter, a Scroogelike plutocrat and slumlord who’s been George’s nemesis throughout. No longer the comfortable “Bedford Falls,” the town–renamed Pottersville–would be a nightmare of sleazy bars, strip joints, and mean, suspicious people. The homes George had helped townsfolk finance would never have been built. His mother, pinched and wary, would make her living running Ma Bailey’s Boarding House. Mary Hatch would be a timorous spinster librarian, while Uncle Billy (never too stable) would be locked away in an insane asylum.

It’s a tremendous guilt trip for poor George–look at all the misery he’d be responsible for by getting his wish not to have lived. The climax comes in the cemetery. A nonexistent George could not have saved his brother Harry from drowning when a boy. Then Harry would not have been around to save the entire crew of a naval convoy ship during World War II. All those young men dead! George collapses weeping on his brother’s tombstone, agonized by sorrow and remorse. That’s when Clarence pronounces those deathless words: “Yes, George, you have had a wonderful life.”

Like Death of a Salesman, Capra’s classic is about death and disillusion, about the incongruities and inevitable frustrations inherent in the American dream. Certain deep contradictions among this country’s traditional ideals–altruism and morality versus striking it rich, the value of community as against lonely success, doing good as opposed to doing well–are illustrated poignantly in Wonderful Life. And it’s all done with great movie art. The pace and timing, the camera movements and mise en scene, the alternation of styles–one could go on and on (and there are books and articles that do so). Suffice it to say that in George Bailey Capra created a devastating picture of a very American despair, an internal conflict so irreconcilable that it can only be resolved by divine intervention.

Which is of course exactly what happens.

Saved by an angel and made to see the value of his life, George rushes home to his family, a home soon besieged by friends bearing money (they’d heard he was in trouble). The film ends with a reunited family and community, all beaming to the strains of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It’s affecting as hell–a really big emotional payoff–and almost hides the fact that (aside from the immediate fiscal crisis) none of George’s basic problems has been solved. Still mired in responsibilities, with no chance he’ll ever fulfill his dreams, he’s been brought around by guilt and dread, then patted on the head and assured that he really has had, does have, a wonderful life.

Oh well! What could be more American, after all, than the resolution of dilemmas through fantasy and admonition? Haven’t we just gone through a decade of something like that?

Do you suppose Capra was being prescient when he made George the head of an S&L?