The Political Narrative Of “It’s A Wonderful Life”

( – promoted by garrett3000)

If Republicans/conservatives these days feel as if the nation (if not the world) is against them, they can always blame Henry F. Potter. Or George Bailey. Or even Clarence the angel.

The Christmas season usually brings with it repeat network airings of Frank Capra’s classic film, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The 1946 movie is usually screened multiple times in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day due to its immense popularity with the public. According to Wikipedia, it “was considered a box office disappointment but…was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Sound Recording and Best Editing. The American Film Institute (AFI) named it one of the best films ever made, putting it at the top of the list of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Cheers, a list of what AFI considers to be the most inspirational American movies of all time.” Indeed it is but it’s also more than just a romantic/fantasy family film; “It’s A Wonderful Life” is also a skillful propaganda film that exalts the essential goodness of people, the importance of community, the implicit logic behind FDR’s New Deal program, the dark side of the American Dream, & the danger (if not evil) that lurks beneath the Will-To-Power mentality (as exemplified by Potter).

Blogger Angelo Lopez has a great diary on Capra which assess the man, the artist, & the kind of creative environment in which Capra thrived. Lopez’s research on Capra produced within him the following epiphany:

When I observed the sympathy that these films had for the common American, I always assumed that Frank Capra was a New Deal liberal. It surprised me to find out that Capra was actually a Republican who disliked Roosevelt and the New Deal. I always found his films to be unabashed liberal films, but as Donald Willis wrote in a critical study of Capra’s films: “Depending on one’s political point of view and on what Capra film or films or parts of Capra films one is talking about, Frank Capra is an advocate of Communism, fascism, marxism, populism, conservatism, McCarthyism, New Dealism, anti-Hooverism, jingoism, socialism, capitalism, middle-of-the-road-ism, democracy or individualism.” I guess my initial response to Capra’s films shows my own bias as a liberal Democrat and in forgetting that many Republicans like Capra do have compassion for working Americans and the poor.

Though Frank Capra is a Republican, I believe that his films do have a liberal and left wing influence. His films are not just his views alone, but the amalgamation of his views and those of his screenwriters. His close friend and frequent screenwriter, Robert Riskin, was a New Deal Democrat. Sidney Buchman was a member of the Communist Party at the time he wrote Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Capra was able to collaborate with people of diverse opinions because of his open mindedness and his respect for divergent views. Joseph McBride wrote in his book, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success,

“The auteur theory… did not recognize the degree to which a filmmaker such as Capra could be influenced by conflicting points of view and incorporate them into his work, nor the degree to which a filmmaker might be expressing his times as much as he was expressing himself. And though there was much controversy in the 1970s about how much credit Robert Riskin deserved for Capra’s success, not even Riskin’s supporters ever pointed out that the crux of the problem was that Capra and Riskin did not have identical sociopolitical views, or that their films could have been a volatile fusion between two conflicting viewpoints rather than a smooth and unified expression of one man’s ideas. Nor was there any cognizance of the degree to which Capra in the 1930s acted as a relatively passive sounding board for the political views of his diverse brain trust, which included the far-right Myles Connolly, the Roosevelt liberal Jo Swerling, and the left-liberal writer and associate producer Joseph Sistrom…. Capra in the prime of his career liked to surround himself with colleagues who were not yes men, and his ability to listen to and absorb such a range of viewpoints ‘made him an interesting guy’, contributing to the complexity of his films.”

In many ways, President-elect Barack Obama is like Capra in his desire to surround himself with a variety of views – even some of them which are opposite to his own. It’s well known that Obama views himself as a transformational figure who hopes to promulgate an updated version of FDR’s New Deal. The high approval ratings he’s receiving from the public suggest the public approves of Obama’s communitarian approach.

No surprise there. Most Republicans/conservatives used to view pop culture as mere entertainment & dismissed the critical importance of art – even popular art – to shape the sensibilities of the public. FDR remains a figure of affection thanks, in part, to the movies made during his time which reflected the idealized sentiments behind the New Deal – if not the New Deal itself. The fusing of political propaganda, entertainment, & art within these movies has been so seamless that they always produce a sense of wonder within each new generation of viewers who discover (or rediscover) these great films.

The run on the bank scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life” will hold a deeper resonance for contemporary viewers given today’s economic upheavals. Potter can be seen as personifying the worst in Wall Street at its most Libertarian extreme, Sam Wainwright can be viewed as a cartoonish capitalist whose decency is overshadowed by his reflexive need to make an ass out of himself (“hee-haw!”), while Bailey can be regarded as always doing the right thing even when doing the right thing undermines the destiny he envisions for himself. Given the current drama of our times, is it a stretch for the average voter to imagine Obama as Bailey?

I’ll reserve my take on Obama until after he submits his budget to the Congress next year. For now, most Republicans/conservatives need to be mindful that their historical disdain for culture (high & low) has left them impotent in the face of an adversary who has thus far skillfully exploited a variety of cultural tropes in the hopes of servicing his agenda. “It’s A Wonderful Life” will once again work its magic even as it reinforces key New Deal narratives which will be skillfully exploited by the Democrats in next year’s political battles. “No man is a failure who has friends,” advised Clarence. Especially friends who are plugged into American culture

About ConcernedVoterInMass

  • “It’s A Wonderful Life” is also a skillful propaganda film that exalts the essential goodness of people, the importance of community, the implicit logic behind FDR’s New Deal program, the dark side of the American Dream, & the danger (if not evil) that lurks beneath the Will-To-Power mentality (as exemplified by Potter)…

    I find myself wondering how any of the above (with the notable exception of the New Deal) is contrary to conservative thought.  Certainly, conservatism recognizes that people are essentially good, if flawed.  Likewise, conservatism recognizes the importance of the community, and that and ideal like the American Dream can be perverted (and that we must stand watch against such perversion).  As to the Will-To-Power mentality, I would think that closer to Nietzsche’s philosophy, and has nothing to do with American Conservatism.

    What am I missing?

  • The Angelic One

    And – typically – it can’t restrain itself from getting snarky about its subject. The few good points raised by the author get lost in his “lookit me!” approach to writing.