A Wonderful Life Requires Liberty

Recently viewing Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a theatrical re-release reaffirmed my view that it is the most important Christmas movie about the American Republic. 

Capra’s brilliant and subtle symbology, perhaps missed for three-quarters of a century, leapt off of the big screen. The message has never been more clear or timely:  although community is important, the ultimate and unmistakable center of the film is liberty. Liberty does not preserve itself but requires men and women who cherish natural equality enough that they are willing to make sacrifices in the face of threats to it. 

Contrary to the estimable Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen’s dark interpretations of the 1946 classic, the citizens of Bedford Falls have far more to fear from Mr. Potter’s soft but real despotism than from the phantom threat of Sam Wainwright’s future big box stores. But I’ll avoid ground already covered by Deneen’s critics and draw attention instead to the hope of liberty that makes this America’s most important Christmas movie. 

Let’s start with the obvious. The film opens not with the ringing of Christmas bells, but with the ringing of an uncracked Liberty Bell. By design and not coincidence, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was the first film produced under Capra’s short-lived “Liberty Films.” This is not simply the 20th Century Fox fanfare, but a visual and musical introduction to the story. 

For audiences in 1946, the ringing of those bells invoked teary joy for VE and VJ day, nostalgia for Christmas, and a reminder of 1776 and the Declaration of Independence—one that foreshadows the appearance of Abraham Lincoln’s image and the political thought that unfolds in the film. One important strain of that thought is Lincoln’s July 10, 1858 admonition to naturalized immigrants in Chicago to consider their citizenship equal to that of native-born Americans.  

[W]hen they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world. 

As Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton before him understood, American immigrants worthy of the name sought liberty and equality over mere financial opportunity. My personal connection to Capra comes through my beloved great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant, not unlike the character of Giuseppe Martini

He arrived by ship to New York shortly after the turn of the century but, after a few years, he went west to seek adventure. He soon became mâitre d’ to the stars at the Hollywood Palladium during the golden age of Hollywood. It was during this time that he essentially played himself as an extra in Capra’s 1934 Academy Award-winning “It Happened One Night.” 

A screen shot of the runaway bride scene from “It Happened One Night” (1934). The author’s great-grandfather is the mâitre d’ on the far left.

He appears for just a few moments as a waiter when King Westley arrives in the autogyro and then again in Claudette Colbert’s iconic runaway bride scene. This second scene reminds us of the persuasion that liberty holds over Americans. The restive heiress Ellie is running throughout the entire film looking for liberty. She finds it on the open road and in the open arms of Clark Gable’s character, a reporter plucked from the pages of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Five years after exploring social liberty in “It Happened One Night,” Capra depicted the dangers to political liberty in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” with James Stewart in the title role. Stewart’s Jefferson Smith stands as a 20th century Lincoln, but his character in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey, has a similar Lincolnian love of liberty. 

In fact, Lincoln serves as a second guardian angel for George. When he begins to lose his grip and smashes up the small corner of the living room dedicated to his great architectural ambitions, Lincoln’s portrait hangs in this same corner. At that very moment, he ponders Mary’s half spoken suggestion of suicide, but it is Lincoln who is looking down upon him rather than Clarence. 

Lincoln at the Forefront

Capra’s films, therefore, kept liberty and Lincoln at the forefront of the American experience. In “It’s a Wonderful Life” we also find them in the Bailey Park neighborhood of Bedford Falls. 

Although the residents’ social interactions may not happen on front porches, the homes are filled with love, family, and friends. When a large gathering welcomes Giuseppe Martini and his family into the neighborhood, Capra emphasizes that the Italian immigrants are as much a part of Bailey Park as the Anglo-Saxons. And even this is topped by a subtle but powerful nod at the end of the film. 

African Americans are scarce in Bedford Falls, but not entirely absent. Shortly before the Bailey family’s former housekeeper, Annie, humorously gives George her donation, a young black woman briefly appears on screen. She contributes to the relief fund and can be heard saying, “Thank you, Mr. Bailey.” 

Capra implies that like so many others in Bedford Falls, George has pulled her out of the Potter’s Field rent slums and made her a home owner in Bailey Park—an integrated community! The tall African American man behind Annie may very well live there, too. Capra allowed sharp-eyed viewers to discover this without drawing backlash. The brief moment is an “Easter egg” for audiences past and future. 

Unfortunately, the Bailey Building and Loan can only build a community between the ideal (Bedford Falls) and the fallen (Potter’s Field). George cannot expel Potter from town, but he can at least frustrate his designs. George ensured no man or woman, regardless of their race, color, or creed, would need to be indebted to Potter. Instead they could live a life of liberty and enjoy the pursuit of happiness. George proves this time and again by giving up his own liberty for the sake of that of others and defends a free Bedford Falls.  

A sign near the bridge points to Albany and Utica, placing Bedford Falls squarely in New York. Seneca Falls claims it is the true Bedford Falls, which would be a fitting nod to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and George’s commitment to the independence of women. But it could just as easily be Highland Falls, the town that military scholar Samuel Huntington juxtaposes against the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as indicative of main street America. Either way, it is a town on a narrow path between tyranny and liberty. Liberty can be found there in the majority of middle-class citizens, but only with a republican leader to unite them. 

Young George always wanted to leave Bedford because he had Lincoln’s ambition to defend liberty on a far grander scale. Surely someone else could defend liberty and stand up to Potter in Bedford Falls, right? Wrong. George is stuck winning victories for freedom in the township, and Mr. Bailey never goes to Washington. As the film’s narrator says, “George fought the battle of Bedford Falls.” 

Sacrifices Required for Liberty

When George’s father Peter dies days before George is set to travel the world and attend college, Potter attempts to buy out the Building and Loan—the last remaining obstacle to his monopolization of economic liberty in Bedford Falls. He tries a second time during the Depression, but fails both times only because George stands in his way. His third attempt, therefore, revolves around corrupting George’s devotion to republican liberty. 

In the scene where Potter offers George a job and enormous salary, a silver skull sits on the desk right in front of George with a Faustian overtone. While Lincoln’s portrait watches over George at home, a bust of Napoleon near the window in Potter’s office keeps its watchful gaze over Potter. Potter’s ambition is not the petty ambition of political rule in the town, it is absolute, if presented as soft, tyranny over the citizens’ liberty—the type of ambition Lincoln describes in his “Perpetuation Address.” George nearly gives in, but he is able to resist the force of Potter a third time. 

Potter’s only complete victory occurs in the timeline in which George was never born. Here Potter stands (figuratively of course) at his height and completely unopposed. 

In the dystopian Pottersville, the exploitation of women hits the audience first. The lights of main street advertise shady shows, and Violet is harassed by lecherous men—men who have traded liberty for licentiousness and slavery to alcohol. Potter is the master of all now. Though we don’t know the origin of Potter’s handicap that leaves him wheelchair-bound, like Shakespeare’s Richard III he seems to revel in his physical disadvantage as an excuse to become the villain. 

Unloved by women, the Potter of Pottersville settles for setting up a system in which he can control them. 

In the actual Bedford Falls, however, since Potter can’t become a hero by serving in the war himself, he takes pleasure in running the town’s draft board deciding who is fit to serve and who isn’t. He even forgoes the opportunity to send his nemesis George off to die, just to ensure that he doesn’t become a hero. 

This contains much irony. Not only because George’s brother Harry becomes a top-notch naval flying ace, but because Capra cast an actual World War II bomber pilot hero, James Stewart, in the part of George Bailey—the role that marked Stewart’s celebrated post-war return to the silver screen. 

That Capra saw World War II as an ultimate test of liberty goes without saying. Capra’s heart after the war was bursting with ideas about liberty and how to preserve it. The film closes with the Liberty Bell again as a reminder of the story’s true cornerstone. The citizens of “Pottersville” couldn’t possibly have rescued a leader like George Bailey. They would have neither the means nor the inclination. They were corrupted and had lost their republican love of liberty. They couldn’t remember a time before the soft despotism of Potter. Liberty was just a myth to them. 

So this Christmas season, watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” on the big screen in your town if you can—and may liberty not be forgotten. Pray that one day  your grandchildren living in Jackdorseyville, Florida or Zuckerberg, Pennsylvania won’t have to ask you, “Was America really free when you were young?” 

For my part I will spend this Christmas with my family telling them the stories my immigrant actor great-grandfather told me. Stories of opportunity, of liberty, and of an America that still strives to hold to the great principle that all men are created equal. I will think of George Bailey pounding on the windows of Potter’s office with that bust of Napoleon now sheepishly looking down and away from him. 

Perhaps I’ll even yell, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!” on my way home from a Christmas party. And I’ll laugh thinking about some present-day Potter calling the authorities to report my unauthorized social gathering and grumpily shouting to me, “Happy New Year to you . . . in jail! Go on home they’re waiting for you.”

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About Melanctonus

Melanctonus is a public servant and teacher of politics at a four-year institution somewhere in Tocqueville’s “great American desert.”

Photo: RKO Pictures/Archive Photos/Getty Images