Ed Driscoll

It’s a Wonderful Fountainhead

From now until December 25th (and perhaps January 1st), Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life will be playing somewhere. It’s available on Blu-Ray. There’s currently a sharp-looking copy on YouTube. It will be on TV, where the film’s reputation was made during its many annual repeats; it was unexpectedly flat at the box office during its initial 1946 big screen run. And it will likely also be playing at a revival theater near you. My wife and I caught one such showing at the movie theater in San Jose’s Santana Row yesterday, which was actually the first time I had seen it on the big screen, in a beautifully remastered digital version. It was a vivid reminder that as popular as It’s a Wonderful Life is on TV, this was a film made to be seen by a large audience in a theater, and their knowing laughter during the film’s best moments — and likely, their weeping by the end of the film as we were — adds immeasurably to its impact.

The film is now a double piece of nostalgia, something not intended by its makers. Certainly Capra and company viewed its initial flashback scenes to the early 20th century, the 1928 high school dance and the 1932-era bank run, as nostalgia. But the film’s contemporary setting of post-World War II America is now almost 70 years in the rearview mirror, as are the morals of the people who made the film.

You certainly can get a sense of that merely from reading the film’s Wikipedia page, when you come to the section on how the film is viewed by leftwing urban critics today, particularly the scenes set in “Pottersville,” the segment in which small town Bedford Falls is transformed into Reno on the Hudson:

In a 2010 Salon.com piece, Richard Cohen described It’s a Wonderful Life as “the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made”. In the “Pottersville” sequence, he wrote, George is not “seeing the world that would exist had he never been born”, but rather “the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.”] Nine years earlier, another Salon writer, Gary Kamiya, had expressed the opposing view that “Pottersville rocks!”, adding, “The gauzy, Currier-and-Ives veil Capra drapes over Bedford Falls has prevented viewers from grasping what a tiresome and, frankly, toxic environment it is… We all live in Pottersville now.”*

The film’s elevation to the status of a beloved classic came decades after its initial release, when it became a television staple during Christmas season in the late 1970s. This came as a welcome surprise to Frank Capra and others involved with its production. “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”In a 1946 interview, Capra described the film’s theme as “the individual’s belief in himself” and that he made it “to combat a modern trend toward atheism”.

Of course, atheism doesn’t necessarily mean socialism — even if that’s how it invariably works out (more on that later); and after the page break, allow me to reprint my 2010 post titled “It’s a Wonderful Fountainhead,” which compares Capra’s 1946 film with its very different contemporary, which was based on Ayn Rand’s novel about a young man who dreams of going to the big city, becoming an architect and building giant phallic symbols, and, unlike George Bailey, who has to reconcile never leaving his small town, succeeds on his own terms. Followed by some further thoughts and links from 2013, and a jaw-dropping moment at Wikipedia.

Joe Carter of the Catholic Education Resource Center explores “The Fountainhead of Bedford Falls.” As he writes, Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark and Frank Capra’s George Bailey aren’t often discussed in the same breath, but the two fictitious characters, immortalized by Hollywood via Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart, two legendary mid-century leading men, have a surprising amount in common.

“To anyone familiar with both works, it would seem the two characters could not be more different, ” Carter notes. “Unexpected similarities emerge, however, when one considers that Roark and Bailey are variations on a common archetype that has captured the American imagination for decades”:

Ayn-Rand-As-Che-10-3-09Howard Roark, the protagonist of Rand’s book, is an idealistic young architect who chooses to struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his artistic and personal vision by conforming to the needs and demands of the community. In contrast, George Bailey, the hero of Capra’s film, is an idealistic young would-be architect who struggles in obscurity because he has chosen to conform to the needs and demands of the community rather than fulfill his artistic and personal vision. Howard Roark is essentially what George Bailey might have become had he left for college rather than stayed in his hometown of Bedford Falls.

Rand portrays Roark as a demigod-like hero who refuses to subordinate his self-centered ego to the demands of the community society. Capra, in stark contrast, portrays Bailey as an amiable but flawed man who becomes a hero precisely because he chooses to subordinate his self-centered ego for the greater good of the community.

Read the whole thing, found via Kathy Shaidle, who has her own thoughts on the comparison.

And for my video interview with Jennifer Burns, the historian and author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, in which we discuss The Fountainhead, along with other aspects of Rand in postwar America, just click here.

Incidentally, say what you will about Rand and Capra, Roark and Bailey, and Cooper and Stewart; the Hollywood of World War II and its immediate aftermath was undoubtedly made of sterner stuff than its current iteration.

And to bring this post back to 2013, to understand why atheism actually does lead to socialism in real life, and as the Salon critic posited, “We all live in Pottersville now,” don’t miss National Review editor-at-large John O’Sullivan’s essay on “Our Post-Christian Society”:

In short, though much of what Christianity taught is forgotten, even unknown, by modern Europeans and Americans, they nonetheless act on its teachings every day.

But there are consequences to forgetting truths. One consequence is that while we instinctively want to preserve the morals and manners of the Christian tradition, we cannot quite explain or defend them intellectually. So we find ourselves seeking more contemporary (i.e., in practice, secular) reasons for preserving them or, when they decay completely, inventing regulations to mimic them. When courtesy is abandoned, we invent speech codes, which are blunter in their impact and repress legitimate disagreement along with insults. When female sexual modesty and male sexual restraint are discredited as puritanical, we draw up contractual arrangements to ensure that any sexual contact is voluntary on both sides. This means that sexual relationships (and their consequences) may occur more often but that they do so in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and legal wariness that poisons relations between men and women over the long run. Above all, when we no longer protect and strengthen the family on the grounds that it is a patriarchal institution harmful to the life chances of women, we encourage the family breakdown that leaves women worse off financially, pushes men into an irresponsible life, and damages their children socially and psychologically.

Like Reno or Vegas, Pottersville looks like a swinging place to spend a weekend. Unfortunately for many of us, when the party’s over, finding the way out isn’t easy. Though to understand why 21st century elite leftist journalists have Pottersville envy, it helps to flashback to Sunny Bunch’s column last month on “Op-Eds as Social Positioning: or, I’m Better than Those Hicks!”

As Christopher Caldwell noted a decade ago in the Weekly Standard, even otherwise thoughtful liberals who hail originally from flyover country are driven kind of nutty by their ignorant kin when it comes to politics. You should really read the whole thing—it’s extremely brief, and the bile so-called liberals direct at their families is something to behold—but here are Caldwell’s concluding paragraphs:

At some point, Democrats became the party of small-town people who think they’re too big for their small towns. It is hard to say how it happened: Perhaps it is that Republicans’ primary appeal is to something small-towners take for granted (tradition), while Democrats’ is to something that small-towners are condemned for lacking (diversity). Both appeals can be effective, but it is only the latter that incites people to repudiate the culture in which they grew up. Perhaps it is that at universities–through which pass all small-town people aiming to climb to a higher social class–Democratic party affiliation is the sine qua non of being taken for a serious, non-hayseed human being.

For these people, liberalism is not a belief at all. No, it’s something more important: a badge of certain social aspirations. That is why the laments of the small-town leftists get voiced with such intemperance and desperation. As if those who voice them are fighting off the nagging thought: If the Republicans aren’t particularly evil, then maybe I’m not particularly special.

“A badge of certain social aspirations,” yes, but something else too. Liberalism and affiliation with the Democratic Party, for these people, is less a series of policy ideas than an almost-religious belief system. Distancing oneself from heretics thus takes on special importance. And how better to show your fellow believers that you are Good than to use the most important news outlet in the entire world to run down your relatives who believed Bad things?

Oh, and while I was poking around Wikipedia for details on It’s a Wonderful Life, I came across this on Lionel Barrymore’s profile. Evidently the PC language police at Wikipedia were on break at the doughnut shop when this showstopper flew by:

wikipedia_niggardly_barrymore_12-15-13

Of course, that is the precise definition of the word, which makes its inclusion — at least for now — in Wikipedia all the more surprising.

* Salon seems particularly obsessed with finding a leftwing slant on the film; last year they ran a story headlined, “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’: Occupy Bedford Falls!” And why not, considering you can now buy posters commemorating 2011’s Occupy movement at…Walmart.

Related: At The Week, Matt Lewis proffers “7 enduring lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life,” including this: “If you’re looking for proof of the decline of values, comparing two holiday movies — Love Actually and Frank Capra’s timeless black-and-white classic It’s a Wonderful Life — is illustrative.” (Found via PJM’s lead editor, Aaron Hanscom.)