'It’s a Wonderful Life' puts Trump in perspective
“Pottersville is closer to how we live now than Bedford Falls.”
Mary Owen, youngest daughter of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” co-star Donna Reed, is sitting in the Washington Square Diner in Greenwich Village. Across the street, a sold-out house is watching the film in a theater.
Mary had just spoken to the audience, mostly millennials. Some had never seen it. She shared stories of her mother and secrets of the filming. She said watching it now is “a good corrective to the campaign we just went through.” The crowd cheered.
Frank Capra’s film premiered 70 years ago this week. It was a commercial flop. “People had already lived through the Depression,” says Mary over a cup of chicken soup. “They had already lived through runs on the bank. They had already lived through World War II, and the rationing. And then suicide. Why would they want to go to a movie 1 / 8 about 3 / 8 all of that?”
But it proved timeless. Mary pulls out an unpublished tribute to the film that her mother had delivered in 1975, just as television audiences were beginning to discover it. She had written: “The great Capra was working with this sure and pure instinct for the human qualities goodness, badness, courage, despair, love and death (with no fear of looking hard at the latter), especially as they are borne by the common man, our everyday kind of neighbor” —Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey.
George is the film’s hero, who is saved by selflessness: his own, through an epiphany about what his life has meant to others, and his community’s, whose generosity rescues him from arrest. Their selflessness is all the more powerful because it comes in response to the extreme selfishness they encounter in the world, personified by the rich, greedy, heartless and vainglorious old codger Mr. Potter.
“The thing that always irks me about Potter,” Mary says, “is that he got away with keeping that $8,000” — money that belonged to the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. Potter’s fraud, she says with a laugh, “almost feels like Trump not having to show his taxes.”
It’s hard not see a little of Potter in Trump. In 2007, Trump rooted for a collapse in the real estate market “because then people like me would go in and buy.” Potter tries the same strategy, only to be blocked by George. When George turns to him for a loan to cover the missing $8,000, Potter’s attack —at 137 characters —is almost Trumpian: “What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help.” Sad!
At the end of that scene, Potter calls the police to swear out an arrest warrant for George. It had a familiar ring to Mary: “When Potter says, See you in jail!’, it reminds me of Trump all of his threats to put Hillary in jail.”
Mary called the film a corrective to the campaign because the campaign had been “so mean-spirited,” while the film shows the power of a strong and caring community: people helping theirs neighbors with genuine concern and without ulterior motive.
When George’s guardian angel (second class) shows him what his hometown of Bedford Falls would look like had he never have been born, he encounters the same people he’s known all his life. But there’s a darkness to their character. A meanness in their tone. A loneliness in their eyes. A violence in their hearts. And a looseness to their morals.
Leadership — George’s ethical, principled, compassionate, selfless leadership — mattered. It had made all the difference.
Many Americans are worried that Trump’s victory will usher in a dark, mean, intolerant mood reminiscent of Pottersville. It’s true that his vanity, demagoguery, dishonesty and lack of curiosity form a dangerous and combustible brew. But the values of the country — and the values of a community — are defined by how individuals like George Bailey choose to live their lives more than by who sits in the Oval Office.
The voters of Seneca County in New York State, where the imaginary Bedford Falls is said to be located, voted for Trump over Clinton. There, and in towns across America, live good and honest people — Republicans, Democrats and independents — who are struggling and worried about their futures. What unites them is their desire to live in communities where working people can earn a decent living and buy their own home. That is far stronger than their attachment to any particular politician or party. Bedford Falls belongs to us all.
“Now, we can get through this thing all right,” George says in the midst of the bank run that nearly puts him out of business and hands control of the town to Potter. “We’ve, we’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”