May 08

Filmlab: Best finance movies of all time – 5. It’s a Wonderful Life


Films about finance don’t have many legitimate heroes. In movies, money has a tendency to taint those who work with it, which is why George Bailey, the pure-of-heart protagonist of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, is virtually peerless in cinema history. Played to perfection by James Stewart – newly returned from the war, his experiences deepening his character’s quiet despair in ways so subtle as to be almost imperceptible – he may wish to one day have a million dollars; he may even blow off his dream of travelling the world and going to college in order to run his late father’s Building and Loan Association; but he’s not driven by the pursuit of wealth or the personal security it brings. Far from it: he’s the most selfless businessman imaginable, rejecting self-interest (albeit grudgingly at first) for the greater good, whether it’s turning down an investment opportunity that would have netted him huge profits, or using his honeymoon savings to prevent a run on the banks from putting his community-supporting, co-operative loan company out of operation for good.

Burdening himself with his father’s benevolent Keynesian belief that the credit-poor working classes deserve the opportunity to own “a couple of decent rooms and a bath”, he’s committed himself to providing the salt-of-the-earth inhabitants of Bedford Falls with an ongoing alternative to the mercenary collect-or-foreclose capitalism favoured by Mr Potter, the town’s resident plutocrat. Granted, in the wake of the subprime-mortgage disaster from which we’re still feeling the effects, Bailey could be seen in a harsher light today – the irresponsible banker making imprudent loans on the basis of character, not credit rating. Indeed, viewed from this modern perspective, Potter suddenly becomes a fiscally responsible sage, warning us of the potentially ruinous effect of having “high ideals and no common sense” – something that will lead, he says, to a “discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class”.

But Bailey – with his affordable housing schemes and his pay-me-when-you-can altruism – isn’t profiteering from his clients. He’s a firm believer that the dignity that comes from owning one’s own home makes for a better, more productive citizenry. Potter, meanwhile, is still a pitiless slumlord, someone who views people as cattle and is therefore closer in spirit to the sort of wealth-building investment bankers that found a way to mine vast profits from securitising debt without thinking through the consequences. No, Bailey is a hero alright, and if you’re left in any doubt, just watch the film’s Dickensian Christmas miracle ending again.

Seeing what the world would look like had he never been born, a suicidal Bailey – beaten down by underhand forces, convinced he’s worth more dead than alive – is shocked into appreciating his lot in life by witnessing an alternate reality full of death, destruction, licentious behaviour and abject poverty. It’s a beautiful moment, a testament – wait, there’s something in my eye – to the enduring power of the human spirit. But there’s also something depressing about this moment of uplift. Is his nightmare not arguably our reality? Aren’t the Baileys of the world forever being dismissed as naïve crackpots while their more ruthless nemeses run roughshod over the rest of us? Even Capra – a noted commie-hunting Republican in later life – didn’t really believe in George Bailey; he was merely canny enough to understand that these were the types of everyman heroes to whom the masses – the austerity of the Depression still fresh in their minds – might relate. Of course, the film famously flopped on its initial release in 1946, suggesting Capra had misjudged the times. But as audiences have continued to embrace it – indeed have continued to fall hard for it – it’s clear now that Capra inadvertently stumbled across something genuinely instructive about how we should be living our lives. Not for nothing does George Bailey end the film the “richest man in town”.

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 08 May 2014