It's a Wonderful Life

In juxtaposing Frank Capra’s sensitive vision of human nature in It’s a Wonderful Life with the realities of the year 2000, Don Williams demonstrates that the rise of mass-mindedness and the emergence of scientific rationalism submerge the individual and reduce his agency and humanity to a set of abstract numbers and predetermined, formulaic norms.

It's a Wonderful Life...2000
by Donald Williams

With the Thanksgiving holiday behind us in the U.S., we have also had our first of several opportunities–until December 25--to watch It's a Wonderful Life on television, the 1946 Frank Capra film that is one of our lasting cultural icons. The film swells the heart with it's vision of friendship, integrity, generosity, and it's affirmation of sacrifice, of small communities, and of our capacity to make a difference in other people's lives.

The film's hero, George Bailey (James Stewart), casts his fate with family, friends, and honor when he decides to sacrifice his desire to travel and study in order to stay in his hometown and run the floundering savings and loan bank that his father guided until his death. The day before Christmas, Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) loses the $8,000 he was going to deposit at the town's bank to cover the account of the savings and loan bank. Uncle Billy forgot where he left the $8,000 in cash but the cash was criminally held by the town's wealthiest and most despicable man, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Potter is contemptuous of Bailey's habit of extending credit and patience to good, struggling people, and he is determined to see the people's small bank fail. The bank examiner shows up the same day, and when the $8,000 shortfall appears, the savings and loan is threatened with closure and an immediate takeover by Henry Potter. George Bailey is ready to end his despair with suicide and to save the bank and his friends and family with his death and $15,000 life insurance policy. An angel prevents his suicide, then gives him a chance to see what his town, "Bedford Falls," would be like had he never lived: it would have been a town dominated by Henry Potter, slavish to money, soaked in bitterness. When George returns from his suicide bridge, he discovers that the townspeople have gathered up their money to cover the $8,000 and to rescue their friend and the savings and loan. By now Frank Capra has again brought his audience to grateful tears.

It is difficult if not impossible for me to imagine this film being made today. For one, the film affirms the lead character's choice to stay in the archetypal small town and to unnecessarily sacrifice education, travel, sexual longings, excitement and creativity, and personal ambition. In stark contrast to George Bailey's choice, our culture champions the vigorous pursuit of individual dreams and ambitions, and our small towns are getting smaller. Although we affirm family bonds and sacrifices as Capra did, we are more painfully aware that the American family is as crazy-making as it is necessary.

Frank Capra, as a young Italian immigrant in Los Angeles, made regular sacrifices for his family; however, he also used his enthusiasm to talk his way into filmmaking, and once he had an entry, his extraordinary talent led him to become the first director to have his name appear on the screen before the film title. His well-known biography is called, The Name Above the Title. Capra may have had George Bailey's spirit and full heart but he didn't make George Bailey's choices. We have ample reasons to be grateful that Capra "left home."

Secondly, I think we are less convinced today that Henry Potter is as bad as he needs to be in Capra's film. We may not like people like Potter but--judging from our fascination with the stock market and from the recent the recent presidential election--we certainly respect people who make sound investments, who achieve economic security, and who, if necessary, can place financial interests over personal sympathies. To be politically fair, most Americans, whether "compassionate conservative" Republicans or Democrats, worship high capitalism. We believe in economic competition and we take financial success, portfolios, and retirement plans very seriously. The defining lines of good and bad character can quickly blur when money enters our calculations. The argument for us is not so simple as it appeared to be in Capra's classic film. We also recognize that it's probably a Henry Potter who will be the largest employer in town.

Finally, the small town bankers probably do not exist any longer–we can find generous people, yes, but not generous "people-in-lending-institutions." Our population has grown, our world has gotten far more complex, bureaucracies have proliferated, and we now have banks with strict, well-defined lending policies. The people who loaned money with a handshake have been transformed into lending officers looking over credit reports and risk scores. We don't negotiate a loan person-to-person, even though we may still act as if we do. The two people at the bank today may talk "personally," but the person in the banker's chair is required by law (as I understand it) to measure requests by an "Approval Grid," to work within guidelines of a "Credit Risk Management Department," to know "benchmark current/debt equity and profitability ratios" and "debt service ratios," to know "exposure limits," and to have "a comprehensive risk scoring / rating system" that provides "standardization...in ratings across borrowers." (1)

Certainly many borrowers still feel like the plain vulnerable people of Bedford Falls. There are many people who want to buy their first home and who feel like Ernie Bishop, the taxi driver whom George Bailey defends before Mr. Potter. But in today's world I don't think there's a George Bailey at the bank or savings and loan. In the eyes of today's "loan officer" Ernie is–for decision making purposes–a borrower with a weak financial position and therefore in a high, scientifically assessed credit risk category, and Ernie's loan, if he receives one, should be priced high to reflect his risk rating and the probability of default. For better or worse, the lending officer and the borrower are characters whose roles are defined by the banking manuals of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities Commission. We are far from anything resembling Bedford Falls.

Our situation today–as we enter the borrowing and spending season of 2000–closely resembles the one Jung lamented in The Undiscovered Self. He was not familiar with computers but he was keenly aware that as the size of any population grows, the individual correspondingly disappears.

One of the chief factors responsible for psychological mass-mindedness is scientific rationalism, which robs the individual of his foundations and his dignity. As a social unit he has lost his individuality and become a mere abstract number in the bureau of statistics. He can only play the role of an interchangeable unit of infinitesimal importance.

It is in this world where the George Baileys and Henry Potters are hard to identify that we struggle to find new ways to experience "a wonderful life."

© Donald Williams 2000.

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References

(1) Risk Management Systems in Banks.
http://www.securities.com/Public/Public98/RBI/Notification/not991021-1.html
See also: FDIC Manual of Examination Policies
http://www.fdic.gov/regulations/safety/manual/00LOANS.htm