Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


It's A Wonderful Life. It's A Subversive Film
December 15, 2006 11:03 AM   Subscribe

The most inspirational film ever has an underexamined dark side, including a 1947 FBI memo that branded the film as subversive and "a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers." The film's script was influenced by the liberal populism of the 1930s, used suicide as a plot point, and was criticized by a Christian Right website for "lax attitudes on alcohol and drunkenness." The film also inspired a feminist art project on "bad girl" Violet Bick and a dead-on parody of a right-wing Christian movie review. Meanwhile, Jimmy Stewart paid back Frank Capra for reviving his post-WWII career by spying on him for the FBI. The hidden backstory behind It's A Wonderful Life.
posted by jonp72 (66 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Anyone else prefer Pottersville?

Out you two pixies go, through the door or through the window!
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:08 AM on December 15, 2006


Every time you diss Jimmy Stewart a kitten loses it's wings.
posted by nofundy at 11:16 AM on December 15, 2006


Nice post. Back during my undergraduate days, a film history class I took screened "It's A Wonderful Life". I hadn't seen it before, but its reputation as a feel-good holiday flick had preceded it, so I was surprised by how sad the film made me. Instead of a heartwarming parable about being happy with your lot in life and finding pleasure in the small things, I read it as a screed encouraging the giving up of your dreams and settling for less than what you'd hoped for out of life, because no matter how bad you think things are now, bub, well...they could always be worse.

Of course, I was monstrously depressed at the time. I like to think that, were I to watch it again, my reaction would be somewhat different.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:16 AM on December 15, 2006


U = BTL
DYING
posted by loquacious at 11:18 AM on December 15, 2006 [2 favorites]


Stewart was a stoolie for Hoover? I'm going to need a little more evidence for that than an article in which every other noun is capslocked. Besides, I've always heard that Capra was actually pretty conservative.
posted by Iridic at 11:18 AM on December 15, 2006


There is something enormously moving about Jimmy Stewart's repeatedly foiled plans to kick the dust of his crummy little town and venture out to a place that's large enough for his ambitions. The scene with Donna Reed when he is fighting falling for her, and so is sometimes deliberately cruel to her, because he knows she is just another anchor to tie him to the town, is exquisitely writter, directed, and performed.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:20 AM on December 15, 2006


Alfalfa was in IAWL, you know. Really.
posted by jonmc at 11:20 AM on December 15, 2006


(nice post, by the way. [This is good] )
posted by loquacious at 11:21 AM on December 15, 2006


Yes, I said writter.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:21 AM on December 15, 2006


Great post. I love this film.
posted by chunking express at 11:27 AM on December 15, 2006


[tinkle][tinkle] Astro Zombie just lost his wings.
posted by nofundy at 11:27 AM on December 15, 2006


The Card Cheat, I myself have never quite been able to believe that Jimmy Steward wouldn't have been better off if he'd gotten in on the ground floor of Sam "Hee-Haw" Wainwright's investment scheme.

I don't think your depressive reading of the film is all that far off. I've always been made gloomy by it, as it seems to me to have a message like, "Don't be sorry you never got to do what you wanted, because you've done so much for other people!" Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, I suppose, but it's not all joy, either.
posted by not that girl at 11:27 AM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]


because no matter how bad you think things are now, bub, well...they could always be worse.

The movie is definitely a little dark for modern tastes and certainly for a 'christmas movie' but I think the main message is that life's ultimately about other people and not ones own self.
posted by scheptech at 11:28 AM on December 15, 2006


"a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers." Attempt to discredit? Methinks bankers were sufficiently discredited by their own shenanigans in the roaring 20's leading up to the 1929 market crash that precipitated the depression

And what business of the FBI's is it whether or not a movie discredits bankers? Oh yeah...

Makes me wonder if the FBI (CIA, etc) maintains a file on people like Bono.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:32 AM on December 15, 2006


Anyone else prefer Pottersville?

Yes.

"Looka me, I'm givin' out wings!"
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:36 AM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]


"a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers."

Well, this is actually true. Of course, to Capra the bankers of the time deserved the discredit -- according to at least one source, his mother lost her house to bankers after his father died, and Capra never missed an opportunity to make bankers the villans.
posted by pardonyou? at 11:37 AM on December 15, 2006


One of my favorite movies—I usually watch it with my Dad every year, and we do a sort of Rocky Horror routine, chiming in on the choicer lines:

I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet...

(bitterly) Awww, she's a peach.

(gloating) ...a warped, frustrated, young man.

Every man on that transport died.

H-harry! Y-you're supposed to be in Washington!

posted by Iridic at 11:42 AM on December 15, 2006


I don't really understand how '...Life' could it be interpreted as a total attempt to discredit banking when George operated a Building & Loan.

I guess could you could see elements of fatalism in Bailey's attempts to leave town but his sacrifice for the community and family more than balance them. Seems almost the perfect anti-Ayn Rand parable.
posted by TetrisKid at 11:45 AM on December 15, 2006


I always wanted to see a remake where Clarence does his best to show the potential suicide that his life was meaningful, but then realize it isn't. And that outside of claiming life in itself is valuable, even if it is not wonderful, he didn't really have an argument against jumping. The xmas part could come in when he decides to make it look like an accident so his kids get a decent life insurance settlement.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 11:50 AM on December 15, 2006


It's a Wonderful Life is an argument in favor of honorable, community building capitalism in opposition to predatory, community destroying capitalism. George Bailey builds new homes for immigrant families, while Old Man Potter builds strip clubs. As it happens, capitalism tends to favor the Old man Potter's of the world, who look at the George Bailey's of the world, see how they spend their money, and declare them socialists.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:53 AM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]


Stewart was a stoolie for Hoover? I'm going to need a little more evidence for that than an article in which every other noun is capslocked. Besides, I've always heard that Capra was actually pretty conservative.

The claim that Stewart spied on Capra for the FBI comes from the biography, Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend, which included interviews with Stewart's widow. Stewart's close relationship with the FBI is also mentioned on the FBI's own Freedom of Information Act web site, although it does not mention Stewart as an informant. Although Capra was a Republican, Capra might have attracted Stewart's attention (and the FBI's) because Capra worked with leftist screenwriters in the 1930s and 1940s who would later get blacklisted. It's A Wonderful Life may even be viewed as one of the last great movies of the New Deal/Popular Front era, if you look at how it was based on collaboration between Republicans, Democrats, and Communists. The Red Scare, the Smith Act, the Hollywood blacklist, McCarthyism etc. would later render collaborations such as this completely impossible.
posted by jonp72 at 11:56 AM on December 15, 2006


George Bailey is one of the angier men in American cinema. Most people lose sight of that, but if you have to sit through another viewing of IAWL, being mindful of that one little fact might just help you keep your sanity.
posted by lodurr at 11:58 AM on December 15, 2006


Fascinating stuff, thanks for the links.
posted by teece at 11:58 AM on December 15, 2006


Saw this for the first time as an adult and was surprised to find my eyes running like Niagara Falls when Harry Bailey says, "A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town."

They don't call it Capra-corn for nothing.
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 11:58 AM on December 15, 2006


Hey look, mister: We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere.
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 11:59 AM on December 15, 2006


The zuzus petals line brings on the waterworks for yours truly.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:01 PM on December 15, 2006


I always confuse the town with Harry Potter. My uestion: at the end of the film, when Steart's brother is there for the celebration,what happened to the brother's wife?she dissapears! Has she run off?

This critique is more Lefty putting down of America...The banker if still around would open a WalMart and employ illegals.
posted by Postroad at 12:04 PM on December 15, 2006


I don't think your depressive reading of the film is all that far off. I've always been made gloomy by it

Same here. George's problems are down to his being a doormat: putting others' welfare above his own to the point of self-destruction. Nor are his actions always good from a broader perspective; how many other lethal screw-ups did the pharmacist make after George didn't shop him for incompetence?
posted by raygirvan at 12:07 PM on December 15, 2006


Out you two pixies go, through the door or through the window!

I also wondered whether this "pixies" quote was intended as an antigay slur. Clarence does come to the bar wearing frilly antique undergarments and can't decide whether to have a "flaming rum punch" or mulled wine with cinnamon. The enforcement of the Production Code severely limited the appearance of covertly gay supporting characters, such as those that appeared in pre-Code films during the 1930s "pansy craze." In addition, as late as the 1960s, bars could have their liquor licenses revoked if they knowingly served gays and lesbians, even if a majority of the patrons were heterosexual. At least, the posters on Free Republic occasionally use "two pixies" as an antigay slur.
posted by jonp72 at 12:18 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]


Hey, this is one of those iconic movies that I have never, ever seen.

So watch it with the spoilers, dangit!
posted by yhbc at 12:20 PM on December 15, 2006


Harry Bailey says, "A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town."

I thought this article on why this movie, and specifically that moment, has become so iconic, was spot on.

I always wanted to see a remake where Clarence does his best to show the potential suicide that his life was meaningful, but then realize it isn't.

A bit lowbrow perhaps, but the Married With Children remake with Sam Kinnison as the angel still makes me laugh. As they travel around, the joke is that everybody's life would actually be way better without Al around, and you can see Kinnison getting more and more desperate as the show progresses.

Hey, this is one of those iconic movies that I have never, ever seen.

Dude, it came out 60 years ago. Just close the browser window now, and go rent it. Your boss will understand.
posted by boaz at 12:32 PM on December 15, 2006


Mary: “He’s making violent love to me, Mother!"

Knowing the sensibilities of the era, my jaw still drops at this line -- it's a pretty astonishing joke for a movie made in 1947. (Mom was in HS when this film came out, and she'd been forbidden to see The Best Years of Our Lives the previous year because it had a guy with hooks instead of hands in it and a woman uttering the word "divorce." My grandparents were convinced that morals were going to hell back then.)
posted by pax digita at 12:41 PM on December 15, 2006


I consciously avoid this film like the proverbial plague every year - it is so trite, so dated, so saccharin...

But I always seem to end up watching it, and my stone cold heart gets very very squishy. I'd sell my soul for a woman like Mary Hatch Bailey/Donna Reed.

Great post.
posted by elendil71 at 12:53 PM on December 15, 2006


I read it as a screed encouraging the giving up of your dreams and settling for less than what you'd hoped for out of life

I really, really hate the "ambition=bad, family=good!" movies that have followed in its footsteps. They seem designed to celebrate mediocrity. But I love IAWL. The old man Gower scene is my guaranteed waterworks moment.
posted by jrossi4r at 1:02 PM on December 15, 2006


Knowing the sensibilities of the era...

Wonder what your grandparents throught of Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, the heartwarming tale of a girl who gets drunk at a party, marries and has sex with a/some soldier(s) she can't remember the next day and finds herself pregnant.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:05 PM on December 15, 2006


Great post, thanks!

It's one of the better holiday movies, in my opinion, because very few people break out into song.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:06 PM on December 15, 2006


I kinda like the scene where we see Violet walking away in that flattering dress; the guys are watching her go, and one of them says, "I wonder what the wife is doing." Smirk-inducing, that.
posted by pax digita at 1:08 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]


for those who havent seen it, this really is an amazing, depressing film, not a holiday film as it seems to be portrayed.

during college i took a class called 'alfred hitchcock and hitchcockian film', and the professor had us watch this and drew several themes between hitchcocks work and its a wonderful life. its that dark.
posted by kneelconqueso at 1:30 PM on December 15, 2006


“He’s making violent love to me, Mother!"

In other films of that era, "making love" is used in a way that seems to mean "wooing" or "sweet-talking." (Dorothy L'amour has a line in Road to Morocco where it's clear that's what she means.) I think it's the same thing in IAWL, but it does sound awfully scandalous to contemporary viewers. I would ask my grandmother about the changing meaning of the phrase in question, but on second thought, no.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:36 PM on December 15, 2006


For those who haven't seen it, why not see the film in its entirety?
posted by ed at 1:37 PM on December 15, 2006


The first film capable of inducing psychotropic effects in the viewer, Jimmy Stewert Drops Acid! (aka Mr. Smith Goes to Bananatown) was confiscated by the CIA upon completion.
posted by loquacious at 1:53 PM on December 15, 2006


God, I love this movie. Great post. Thanks.
posted by brundlefly at 1:53 PM on December 15, 2006


during college i took a class called 'alfred hitchcock and hitchcockian film', and the professor had us watch this and drew several themes between hitchcocks work and its a wonderful life. its that dark.

There are some definate dark themes to IAWL. However..

In my junior college film class, we spent a couple days discussing the (tenuous at best, imho) homoerotic aspects of Casablanca. It occurs to me that it takes a couple of generations of very creative film students to "uncover" these hidden themes and perhaps some films may just fall under the auspice of "a cigar is sometimes just a cigar".
posted by elendil71 at 1:54 PM on December 15, 2006


Same here. George's problems are down to his being a doormat: putting others' welfare above his own to the point of self-destruction. Nor are his actions always good from a broader perspective; how many other lethal screw-ups did the pharmacist make after George didn't shop him for incompetence?

Pfft! The pharmacist was drunk/distraught because he'd just got a telegram that his son had died. Pay attention! Unlikely that would happen every day.

As for the rest, you might better see it as the story of a man who is forced into a responsibility (for the town) he does not want but cannot refuse, unless he wants Old Man Potter to win. Although I do think he needed to have a talk with his brother about sharing the load; no reason Harry couldn't put off working for his father in law while George got some education, at least.

My favorite bit of the movie is how Mary's horrible fate when George doesn't exist is to become...a librarian spinster! When clearly, being a hoochie coochie dancer in Pottersville was where the money was.
posted by emjaybee at 2:07 PM on December 15, 2006


I agree with the writer Connie Willis that Miracle on 34th St. is a better Christmas movie anyway. (Although on my most recent viewing not only that goofy judge but John Payne's smirking started bugging me.)
posted by NorthernLite at 2:38 PM on December 15, 2006


The Card Cheat, I think Grandpa was the problem. At my sister's wedding, Grandma, a new widow that year at 82, was cheerfully line-dancing with us.
posted by pax digita at 2:55 PM on December 15, 2006


In other films of that era, "making love" is used in a way that seems to mean "wooing" or "sweet-talking." (Dorothy L'amour has a line in Road to Morocco where it's clear that's what she means.) I think it's the same thing in IAWL, but it does sound awfully scandalous to contemporary viewers.

Exactly -- the phrase originally meant anything from making eyes at someone to courting to talking seductively to making out, but not having sex.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:53 PM on December 15, 2006


I might suggest that by using the word "violent" in association with "making love" pretty much implies the most prurient of interpretations. I'd love to hear how one "violently" makes eyes or courts someone. While I can comprehend a "violent" make-out session, I think we all know where that would be headed.

I think pax had it right.
posted by elendil71 at 4:29 PM on December 15, 2006


Although it's not totally straightforward, the structure of IAWL is the same as the structure of another dark Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol. A banker reviews his past present and future -- in the case of IAWL, the long flashback at the beginning involving the druggist's error represents Christmas past, the middle sequence is Christmas present and the Pottersville sequence is Christmas future -- and eventually decides that he is essential to a valuable world. George is angry and about to turn his back on the world for the same reason Scrooge already had -- dashed hopes and perceived lack of appreciation. Potter is the anti-Marley, trying not to save George but to sink him. But watch the film with this in mind and you'll be amazed how many other parallels you'll find.
posted by ubiquity at 4:57 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast
posted by Smedleyman at 5:58 PM on December 15, 2006


"Making love" did, indeed, mean "wooing" up until the 1950s or even 1960s. The 1960 Marilyn Monroe movie "Let's Make Love" didn't literally translate to "Let's Have Sex", for example, at least not so much so that censors got involved. The definition has changed over the years, but many online sources still list both the definition of the phrase which means courtship or amorous attention, as well as the current definition.
posted by smashingstars at 7:47 PM on December 15, 2006


A fine movie, quite dark sometimes and I can't wait to read the backstory. The only one I know is the one Tom Bosley tells us on the DVD's extra.

I love the scene where he loses it in the living room.
posted by Tim McDonough at 8:09 PM on December 15, 2006


Because It's a Wonderful Internet.
posted by Jilder at 11:01 PM on December 15, 2006


Time was, it had lost its copyright - which was why it showed up on television every damn year. No more, if these guys are to be believed. Viva capitalism!
posted by IndigoJones at 7:03 AM on December 16, 2006


I appreciate learning about the changing meaning of the phrase "making love" and welcome the broad ambiguity of it, but after reading what elendil71 wrote, I think I'll stick to my guns: How, exactly, would one go about wooing violently?

(Maybe I've been doing it wrong all these years!)
posted by pax digita at 7:42 AM on December 16, 2006


pax digita - again it's a matter of definition. "Violent" doesn't always mean "physically forceful" - it also means intense, or ardent. So, just as an example, if he were following her from room to room saying "I love you! I love you! I can't live without you!" and grabbing her hand and kissing it over and over, that would be "making violent love" to her. Trust me; the film pedants among us know whereof we speak.
posted by tzikeh at 9:15 AM on December 16, 2006


Why don't you just kiss her instead of talking her to death?
posted by kalimotxero at 10:13 AM on December 16, 2006


Every year, my wife and I find delight in the fact that, while Clarence is showing George around town, George finally figures out he needs to talk to his wife. When he runs off, Clarence cries out in horror: "She's closing up the library!!!"

What a gloriously cruel statement on the librarian profession.

It should be noted that the first page of a Google search on "She's closing up the library" all hits on references to IAWL.
posted by thanotopsis at 1:19 PM on December 16, 2006


Wow, I'll have to give this movie another shot I guess - if anyone can change my mind, it would be a bunch of MeFis . My heart, however, will always belong to Alastair Sims during Christmas. He and he alone was Scrooge, damnit...
posted by rmm at 9:30 PM on December 16, 2006


Pfft! The pharmacist was drunk/distraught because he'd just got a telegram that his son had died. Pay attention!

I have been paying attention. Someone who reacts to bad news by getting drunk while doing a safety-critical job, and in that state beating a child until his ears bleed, looks pretty unstable to me. That he ultimately becomes a drunk in the alternate future where George didn't cover up for him suggests it was habitual.
posted by raygirvan at 3:48 AM on December 18, 2006


Excellent post
posted by caddis at 8:43 AM on December 18, 2006


raygirvan, his son dies in the war. It's not like he was told BestBuy had sold out of its stock of Playstation 3's. Also, in the alternate world he's out of a job and homeless. Many homeless people turn to drinking, irrespective of whether they were drunks before becoming homeless.
posted by chunking express at 11:03 AM on December 18, 2006


chunking: Actually, as I recall, his son dies of influenza (though now that I think of it, it could have been polio). If I do the math and work backward, I don't think he could have died in a war unless it was in the Phillipines.

But if it were 1917 or so, lots of people would have been dying of influenza at that time. Lots of people then thought that it was the end of the world -- a new "black plague". In some small towns, they did things like blocking off the roads into town so strangers couldn't come in and infect everyone. Against that backdrop, a total collapse would be kind of reasonable, in a way.

IAWT was made at a time when that was a matter of living memory for a lot of people, so Capra wouldn't have needed to explain it. If that were when it was supposed to have happened.

As for what it takes to become a drunken outcast: Remember also that in the Potterville universe, Gower was convicted of manslaughter. He's an ex-con, and an especially morally reprehensible kind of ex-con at that. So, again, it's pretty believable that he'd be a souse, and it doesn't really have any bearing on whether or not he would have been "incompetent."

In other words, methinks somebody (who is NOT chunking) is projecting some moral outrage at an unwrothy target.
posted by lodurr at 12:20 PM on December 18, 2006


IAWT > IAWL
posted by lodurr at 12:21 PM on December 18, 2006


I've watched the movie once several years ago and found it depressing and gloomy. The mister insists I watch it again with him and I'll have a different take on it. We'll see - I bought it for him for his birthday. Now that's love for you.
posted by deborah at 2:23 PM on December 18, 2006


lodurr you might be right. I haven't seen the movie in a while. I vaguely remember him getting a telegram informing of his sons death. I need to watch this film again.
posted by chunking express at 8:31 AM on December 19, 2006


« Older "Heavy set, older, red heads and even black chicks...  |  What do reindeer do when they'... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments