I don’t have your money here! It’s in….Bill’s house…And…Fred’s house!What the hell are you doing with my money in your house Fred?– The PTA Disbands, The Simpsons
I finally saw Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The Helix over at DCU was screening a variety of modern and classic films in a cinema setting, and they chose the Jimmy Stewart classic as their Christmas movie. And quite right, too. However, watching the film, I couldn’t help but get the sense that things weren’t quite as simplistic as the movie made them out to be and that, while George Bailey might be one heck of a nice guy, there’s absolutely no way I’d trust him to handle my finances. While the town’s old miser, Potter, might as well have a moustache to twirl, I can’t help but think that maybe he might have a point or two about George Bailey, something the movie never really addresses.
Okay, let’s be frank. George Bailey is a nice guy. People like him. We get a glimpse of what the world might be like without him, and it’s not good. Apparently his absence causes, through a complex series of factors, more deaths during the Second World War, his wife ending up a lonely librarian, and apparently more snow falling on the exact same day. In the end, when the loss of the Buildings and Loans money is revealed, the entire community rallies behind George and digs him out. In fact, he’s such a nice guy that the officer sent to his house tears up the warrant for George’s arrest. I’m not sure that’s how warrants work, but George is a nice guy – so let’s run with it.
Potter, on the other hand, is a miserable old grump. He’s selfish, he’s mean, and he’s lonely. He owns most of the town, and has aspirations of owning the other half. He keeps his tenants living in poorly maintained shanty towns, and resents George for being more popular than he is and for being the only thing blocking Potter’s complete control of the entire community. He’s not a nice guy, in any sense of the phrase. I should also clarify that it’s a very well-made film, and I enjoyed it, even if I had a few problems with the way George was presented.
I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the situation wasn’t quite as clear-cut as Capra makes out. I’m not going to suggest that the alternate “Pottersville” we see, after the miser has taken over the town, might be for the better for the small community, even though you could make that argument. Although the local economy appears to be thriving, it seems to be drawing in tourists, and it has a healthy nightlife, the people around Pottersville live in unsafe slums paying absurd rent to a landlord who doesn’t care for them.
Indeed, if it wasn’t for the Hayes Code, I’m sure that Capra would have presented Pottersville as a city of absolute sin, with all the horrible things one expects, bringing prostitution and drug addiction to corrupt the small town. Indeed, it could be argued that the world where George Bailey was never born looks a lot like the world today. And not in a good way. We can accept that despite the boom and the bright lights of Pottersville, they come at a great cost.
However, the movie never explains why George Bailey’s way of business is better, or less bad. Made in the fifties, the film includes one sequence where the put-upon self-sacrificing George finds his father’s company in the middle of the Great Depression. As people come in claiming their money, Bailey claims that the money isn’t in the Buildings and Loans. It’s in the community he’s built using the funds at his disposal. As such, he ends up having to pay out to people using the money he planned to spend on his honeymoon.
This scene is supposed to establish George as a guy who is far too nice for his own good. He’s already given up his dream of leaving the town and seeing the world, or even going to college, all to keep the small community alive. Here we see him giving up his honeymoon to make sure that the people of Bedford Falls can eat and live for a week, all because he doesn’t actually have their deposits on hand. We’re supposed to feel sorry for George, and recognise his integrity.
However, there’s a difference between integrity and recklessness. George makes the case that he used the money people deposited to invest in the community, using it to allow people to buy their own houses or even to build and develop proper housing for them. As Potter points out, George gives out loans to people based on how much he likes them, rather than judging any capacity to pay back. He makes the argument that people deserve a roof over their own head and a place to call home, and it’s a sweet argument. However, people also deserve to have their money invested in a safe and considered manner, rather than handed out to the friends of the guy who runs the place. In confronting Potter, George points out how difficult it is for a member of the community to save $20,000 dollars, but ignores the fact that those who might deserve to see their money treated with care and prudenc.
After all, George all but concedes that he’ll never make any money. While people might try to make their payments, he doesn’t push it. This sounds great in theory, and it is – if you’ve got a loan from George. However, if you put your money in George’s bank, it isn’t good news. Ironically, despite the fact that Potter is the type of fellow we imagine to be the cause of the world’s economic crisis, we’ll find more of George Bailey’s recklessness out there: people loaning money that they know probably won’t be paid back, loaning it to friends, and trusting the handling of moneys to unqualified family and acquaintances. In fact, we’re explicitly told Potter single-handedly kept the town alive during the Great Depression. He had his own selfish reasons for doing so, but he kept people in jobs and from starving, when George guilted them into not claiming their savings when they needed them most.
The whole plot gets going because George’s uncle loses $8,000. This isn’t uncharacteristic of the man, based on what we’ve seen. He’s absent-minded and scatter-brained. It’s cute for the first half of the movie, but becomes a bit less so when he misplaces the money. His uncle is, like George himself, a nice guy. Still, he’s not the person I’d trust with my money. In fact, I’d be happier if George were handling my money. At least then my hard-earned money might be invested in something, rather than lost by a nice bumbling idiot.
That isn’t to say Potter is any better, but his policies are more prudent. One wonders what George might have been able to do had he negotiated with Potter and taken the job offered. Perhaps the two world-views could have reached a compromise. George wouldn’t blow large chunks of investors cash on items that would never see returns, but Potter would stop screwing the inhabitants of the town so much. It isn’t as if the two options are mutually exclusive, though Capra’s film seems to suggest they are. You can have the thriving bright lights and energy of Pottersville, tempered with George’s compassion and understanding. It isn’t a case that the audience has to choose.
I like George Bailey. He seems like he’d be fun to spend a bit of time with, but I can’t help but feel that the guy brings a lot of his problems on himself. It’s not just that he’s so nice as to be a pushover, but it’s the fact that he’s wilfully fiscally reckless, and the movie asks us to accept that. I can’t help but wonder, were I to attempt to make a movie today about a bank manager who decided to improve the local community by loaning money to his friends to improve their standards of living, if it would be quite as warmly accepted.