Blind Man with a Pistol

This is not Bedford Falls


I always disliked Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as a teenager. I couldn’t buy that George Bailey, the intrepid cavalier whose only reward for discarding his lifelong hopes and dreams for conservative family security was not committing suicide and not losing the livelihood he never wanted. I know there’s suposed to be something about the respect of your peers and the triumph of the human heart, but it always seemed rather thin to me.  This was eventualy compounded with an innate suspicion that because Paramount ‘forgot’ to renew its copyright in 1974 and let it enter the public domain, it became a “Holiday Classic” simply by virtue that broadcasters could play the movie ad nauseum.

Lately, however, my opinion of the film is changing. I’ve decided that Capra’s film is essentially a film noir in sheep’s clothing. Aesthetically, of course, the film uses many noir tropes: voice overs, flashbacks, chiaroscuro lighting and the cynical irony of Jimmy Stewart. But this style evidences nothing more than perhaps the fashion of the times. What truly establishes It’s a Wonderful Life as a noir is its treatment of the noir subject: the tough, ironic specimen of compromised masculinity who is drawn rather than travels through life, a a passive observer to forces beyond his control.

Gary Kamiya at Salon recently wrote about Capra’s opus, in which he hails the part of the film that is most explicitly film noir: the sultry, urban portrayal of a George Bailey-less world.

In Capra’s Tale of Two Cities, Pottersville is the Bad Place. It’s the demonic foil to Bedford Falls, the sweet, Norman Rockwell-like town in which George grows up. Named after the evil Mr. Potter, Pottersville is the setting for George’s brief, nightmarish trip through a world in which he never existed. In that alternative universe, Potter has triumphed, and we are intended to shudder in horror at the sinful city he has spawned — a kind of combo pack of Sodom, Gomorrah, Times Square in 1972, Tokyo’s hostess district, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast ca. 1884 and one of those demon-infested burgs dimly visible in the background of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

There’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!

It sure does. Or at least, it certainly appears to. But what is particularly striking about this section of the film is that Pottersville more closely resembles the ‘real’ America: dehumanizing and debauched, rife unemployment, and criminally overseen by a General Sternwood-esque capitalist magnate, Mr. Potter. Bedford Falls, on the other hand, the ‘reality’ of the film, comes across as an eerie dream world of community, fraternity and equality (albeit with a creepy dose of privacy forfeiture). This dream world pales in the context of postwar America where a generation of men are searching for their identity, women are searching for their rights, and the capitalist state apparatus is violently rebuking such ideals at every opportunity in the face of the communist menace. Indeed, there is something powerfully unsettling about the film’s opening shot that brazenly declares to the viewer “YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS” when we know, emphatically, we are not. Its uncanniness rivals Rene Magritte’s famous ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’.

Ironically, Bailey’s ‘dream’ world—that is, one where he has left Bedford Falls for college, travels or the war (!)—is the same as the one where he dies (paging Dr. Lacan). It’s also the real America. Essentially, America has dreamed itself, mediated by Bedford Falls where we all (do not) reside. Suddenly, we see the emergence of the noir universe, in which we are parasitic stowaways to our own capitalistic fantasies. How appropriate, then, that in the inflated consumerism of contemporary Christmas, this ‘wonderful’ film has monopolized our holidays by virtue of its repeatability, marketability and libidinal bribery.

Kamiya certainly notices this, although his conclusion is perhaps less jaded than my own:

I have made, I believe, a definitive case that Pottersville has gotten a bad rap and that Bedford Falls is grossly overrated. But if there are any who are still unconvinced, I would just like to remind them of one little detail: in the real world, Potter won.

We all live in Pottersville now. Bedford Falls is gone. The plucky little Savings and Loan closed down years ago, just like in George’s nightmare. Cleaned up, his evil eyebrows removed, armed with a good PR firm, Mr. Potter goes merrily about his business, “consolidating” the George Baileys of the world. To cling to dreams of a bucolic America where the little guy defeats the forces of Big Business and the policeman and the taxi driver and the druggist and the banker all sing Auld Lang Syne together is just to ask for heartbreak and confusion when you turn off the TV and open your front door.

So don’t fight it. It’s a Pottersville world! Welcome jitterbuggers! Get me — (ka-ching!) — I’m giving out wings!

On my last watching of It’s a Wonderful Life I found myself really, truly enjoying it, both its preciousness and its stylistic gall. Perhaps Kamiya’s solution is the best one. If you’re offering a two-for-one Boxing Day sale on wings, I’ll be the first to queue up.

hat-tip to Julio

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Such cynicism. :)

In fact, there is another article at the Washington Monthly arguing that the smaller loan companies and banks are the ones that will survive this crisis in the US.. and its no surprise they use at their main homepage an image of Stewart playing Bailey during the “bank run” scene to promote that article.

Also ironically, this movie, if you read up on its history, was complained about to the FBI in 1947 for allegedly promoting communism.. apparently demonizing bankers and championing the everyday George Bailey was the main reason why.

Comment by Scott Tribe

Catchfire, I will read your analysis over and over again to see whether I can find the feeling I lost for this film many years ago. I realize that my reaction is irrational and unprocessed, but for those many years, it has made me feel a sadness so deep that I cannot bear to watch it again, or I haven’t been able to for more than a decade.

Comment by skdadl

What a great read and analysis Blind Man. That film always tugged at my heart so I never actually stepped back to give it a closer, clinical look.

Scott, I do remember reading about reactions to the film when it first came out and Capra being singled out as some kind of anti-capitalist crusader. But I’m not sure it is really that rebellious now that I think about it. Big money and monopoly control were the main criticisms offered by those Capraesque films but there was definitely a strong streak of Horatio Alger thinking, were every individual could get it together to succeed and thwart the tycoon.

I would say that “Miracle of 34th Street” falls into a similar category. The tycoon/merchants rivaling each other are brought down a notch by a seemingly average and normal little girl. Basically, these films encourage some kind of hope for the little guy or gal. LOL, for some reason I am cynically reminded of the recent chant, “Yes we can!”

Comment by Beijing York

Thanks for that article, Scott. That’s great!

But I think I’m inclined to agree with Beijing here. Capra’s films seem almost like the cinematic equivalent of New Deal Liberalism: small-town, heroes standing up to nineteenth-century style corrupt and monopolizing magnates to achieve middle-class comfort through good fortune and ‘moral character’. Definitely Ragged Dick in the New Deal.

But what makes the film interesting is how conflicted the film’s politics are. Capra seems almost to be pandering to an audience sympathetic to the New Deal rather than manufacturing Democrat campaign literature. Consider that his last project was the war propaganda series Why We Fight (1942-1945). Furthermore, the liberal political foundation that had seemed so surefooted twenty years prior was now morphing into something completely different in the popular consciousness. And Capra’s own politics were allegedly quite different from those explicitly espoused in his films. The result is a filmmaker overcome with an anxiety about what his public wants, what his own politics are, and the America that emerges in his film.

And I think, skdadl, that this is where the film starts to appeal to me again. I know what you mean, I think, about the frustrating feeling of loss that accompanies this film–for me, it’s like there’s this public affirmation that touches everyone but you; kind of like the woman whom nineteenth-century German essayist Heinrich Heine heard call out after a performance of The Merchant of Venice “But the poor man is wronged!” It can be quite alienating, even infuriating.

But I really found the film interesting when I realized how anxious the film is–about its polemic, about its preciousness, and about cinema in general. Once I began to see Capra as less a mammoth icon of the industry and more as an artist who has lost his way, I found the film much more endearing.

Comment by Blind Man

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