If you are visiting Bedford Falls this Christmas, please drive carefully. Not simply to avoid a drunk, suicidal building society manager crashing into a tree – although that is admittedly a seasonal hazard.
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life turns 70 this Christmas, and for many people a repeat viewing is central to their celebrations. Who wouldn’t want to wallow in a film about unity and hope, about the triumph of the little guys with big hearts against the big men with small minds, at this time of year? But proceed with caution, because this small town, and its festive fable, is beset with danger.
With every passing year, and especially in this one, It’s a Wonderful Life feels more like a warning. It’s often been noted that this ‘feelgood film’ spends more time articulating miseries – from the near-death experiences in George Bailey’s childhood to the godless horrors of Pottersville, the noirish parallel to sweet, folksy Bedford Falls.
All’s well that ends well, though, with the town rallying against the malignant Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and alongside their humble saviour George Bailey (James Stewart). A bell rings, the town is saved and – “Attaboy, Clarence!” – Bedford Falls can fall asleep on Christmas Eve knowing that God, and the angels, are on its side.
Except… the sanctuary of Bedford Falls is built on very shaky ground. All it takes to keep this inclusive, mutually supportive community from becoming the urban hell of Pottersville is the presence of one man, Bailey. Look a little more closely at Bailey, though, and you’ll see that he has more in common with his supposed nemesis, Potter the unfeeling brute, than his humble neighbours who do the “working and paying and living and dying”. As Graham Fuller wrote in the Guardian, Bailey “both defines and challenges populism”. And, as the snow falls on Christmas Eve, the people of Bedford Falls have united to reject the establishment in favour of a “man of the people” capitalist marred by mood swings and megalomania. In 2016, that might give us reason to worry.
Bailey hates Bedford Falls, which he calls a “crummy old town” and makes repeated, failed attempts to leave. He’s stuck there because of bad business and bad health – he stays home during the war because his impaired hearing renders him 4F. Instead of leaving to build skyscrapers and bridges (“I wanna do what I wanna do!” cries this self-interested youth), he’s fighting “the battle of Bedford Falls”, trapped in a small town, running the family business.
Bailey hates the family business too. The Building and Loan where he raises a toast to “Mama Dollar and Papa Dollar” is the only place in town where people can come “without crawling to Potter”. But it’s just a proxy for Potter – the Baileys have been crawling to him for generations, and it lives and dies at his own cruel, opportunistic whim. Potter sees himself in Bailey: not only are they both “warped, frustrated” men, but he points out that they were the only two in town who kept their heads, and businesses, during the Great Depression.
Who made sure that George stayed home during the war? Potter, who ran the draft board. If you think it’s sinister that Potter puts his name on the town, and the slum estate he owns, don’t forget that our hero’s housing project was called Bailey Park. Bailey and Potter share a contempt for Bedford Falls and a desire to possess and remould it.
What is it like to be a woman in Bedford Falls? Ask Gloria Grahame’s Violet who is leaving for New York after an unexplained crisis leaves her destitute and despised. Or ask Bailey’s wife Mary (Donna Reed). What happened on the night you first danced with George, Mary? You found yourself naked in public while George joked about taking advantage of the situation, or selling tickets? And he told you not to call the police, because they would be on his side.
What is it like to be an immigrant in Bedford Falls? Potter and Bailey compete for your business, but are you truly welcome? As Potter tempts Bailey with a job offer, and a life of high-net-worth luxury, he says Bailey is currently “playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters”. And high-minded Bailey doesn’t contradict him.
It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t always a Christmas classic – its star didn’t rise until the late 1970s, and it became a festive fixture in Reagan’s 80s. Then, in 1989, when Back to the Future Part II created its own hellish “Pottersville” (an alternative version of 1985), the depiction of school bully Biff Tannen’s rise to power, from business empire to political influence, took a cue from Donald Trump, an entrepreneur and entertainer who is now the US’s President Elect. What begins as a joke, or a daydream, or a movie, has an uncomfortable knack of coming true.
Clarence, the angel sent from a heaven administrated like a corporation, brings Bailey back to his better self. He is a better, more idealistic man than Potter – a loving father and husband, a grateful friend to his fellow man. But when Potter dies, Bailey will be the biggest man in town, and who knows how he will handle the responsibility? “You are now in Bedford Falls” reads the reassuring sign on the grass. Trouble is, Bedford Falls looks a lot like Pottersville.