As Thanksgiving morphs into Christmas, the December television schedule will be filled with the usual assortment of Christmas classics, not the least of which is Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen his movie and unlike some classics that are tiresome, this one always grabs me. The idea of selfless giving is made manifest when the entire community comes to George Bailey’s aid. I think every small business owner secretly views his business as the Building and Loan and himself as George Bailey!
But It’s A Wonderful Life was not Capra’s masterpiece. When it was released in 1946, it was not well received. At all. To truly understand It’s A Wonderful Life, Capra’s pre-war films are a must to see his formula, a formula that exalted the humble everyman taking on the various Goliaths of the age. If you like It’s A Wonderful Life, let me suggest a Capra Trilogy to enjoy with your family over Christmas: You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe. Each of these movies plants a seed of a theme that culminates in It’s A Wonderful Life. I don’t think you can watch any of these movies without a renewed sense of what it means to be an individual pitted against a soulless property developer, corrupt political leaders, or a manipulative selfish tycoon.
Capra’s movies were released in the middle of the Great Depression. His films were an intentional attempt to give people living in this era a vested interest in that uniquely American system that made Davids believe that Goliaths could be defeated. The doom of the strong was the happiness that radiated from the successes of seemingly powerless little men. Though possessed of limited resources, they had the intangibles that faithful people know as the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, and the like. All of Capra’s movies are morality plays to inspire people to take on the challenges of their lives and to stand up to the shameless bullies who yield power, mainly for power’s sake and the ego that comes with flexing muscles to show off.
The strain of populism so ingrained in the lives of Americans is perfectly reflected in Capra’s films. His focus was on the human actions of the silent majority of quiet, everyday people making decisions based on visions of simple moral clarity. He lifted the permanent things so often neglected compared to the temporary glitz and glamour of material gain. Each film contains a large dose of middle-American values magnified time and again against the traps and situations of a complicated impregnable bureaucratic world. And in each case, the little guy wins, and the big mules not only lose face but are publicly shamed into accepting, if not participating in their own defeat.
These films are in many ways a large mirror reflecting not only the tenor of the times but also the implicit impact of human nature struggling for freedom and self-determination. In short, people can see themselves in these films and identify with the characters. Everyone wants to see the characteristics of the white-hatted hero in themselves, but are reminded by conscience that they possess some of the traits of the villain too. Everyone hopes they will make wise and prudent choices when faced with decisions of moral consequence. Everyone in Capra’s films has a shot at redemption, but not every character accepts the offer; the developing conflicts that are resolved in favor of the common man are what make each film so entertaining.
Capra’s films had consequence when they were initially screened by uplifting average people and giving them hope and a feel-good sense of their significance. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the impact of Capra’s films is that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was the last American film shown in France after the Nazi occupation. To the consternation of almost all the American political class (including Ambassador Joseph Kennedy), the French were inspired by that film and identified with Jefferson Smith. To the French and others, Mr. Smith encouraged people to see that the greatness of the United States was in the power of the intangibles of lively dissension, vigorous debate, and free speech. In 1940, as the lights of freedom were dimming all over the world, Capra showed America at its best in the person of Jefferson Smith. There is no way to measure the number of French resistance fighters emboldened by this film and encouraged by American ideals. If you liked It’s A Wonderful Life, be inspired by the unabashed patriotic films of Frank Capra. You’ll be motivated and perhaps even challenged to identify with a character to live out the American dream in simple community with others, who also struggle against human nature to find goodness and selfless service in their daily life.