Posted Saturday morning, July 29, 2017.
George Bailey (James Stewart, center) is confronted by the Pottersville that exists beneath the surface of Bedford Falls in a scene from It’s A Wonderful Life.
Bedford Falls, the Norman Rockwell Christmas card town at the heart of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, looks to be such a nice place to live that we almost overlook that it's still a place where Mr Potter holds enormous financial and political sway and that he doesn't use his influence with altruistic intent and he's not alone. He has the support and encouragement of other businessmen in town and probably a few local politicians, as well.
What does it say that the absence of one man allows Potter free reign to turn Bedford Falls into Pottersville?
Well, it’s hard to say for sure what it says since it's hard to say what Capra was trying to say or thought he was saying in any of his more socially critical films like It's A Wonderful Life and Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. As Mark Harris lays out in Five Came Back:A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Capra wasn't a born political philosopher. His thinking was all over the place, guided by his emotions and his own experience at the moment.
He was an immigrant and a Republican in a time when the GOP had long established itself as the anti-immigrant party and he continued to be a Republican after he became a staunch supporter of FDR though his feelings about the New Deal were ambivalent and self-contradicting. He was an anti-fascist who admired Mussolini. He was happily capitalistic but filled his movies with labor-friendly dialog and socialist themes. He was a champion of the common man and woman who, as Harris writes, saw how "friends and neighbors could easily turn into a hateful mob".
And while his films expressed a "pious veneration of small-town life", he was well-aware of the Pottersvilles thriving under the surface of towns like Bedford Falls.
When we see the Pottersville that George's not having been born allowed to come into being, it's represented by businesses that serve needs and appetites that certainly existed to be served in Bedford Falls and may have been there in some form---the pawnbroker's, the dance hall, the billiard parlor---"Fights Every Wednesday Night"---cheap hotels and sleazy bars. The real difference is that they appear to be the center of the town's social life instead of places like the soda fountain at Gower's Drug Store, friendly neighborhood taverns like Martini's, and, of course, the Building and Loan.
The character of the town has changed but so have the characters of the people living in it and it's a question of which is cause and which is effect and which is a reflection of which.
Ma Bailey is cold and suspicious. Bert has gone from friendly neighborhood cop on the beat to unquestioning enforcer of civil authority as laid out by Potter and his cronies. Ernie the cab driver is embittered by his failed marriage and ready to take out his anger on any passenger at the slightest suspected provocation. Nick the bartender is a bully and a sadist. Violet, the girl who just wants to have a little too much fun, is now a prostitute and not having any fun at all. And they're the same people they were. It's not that their different circumstances have turned them into different people. It's that the circumstances have brought out the worst in them.
The same is true to a degree of Mary, but only to a degree because we suspect that she's like George in being the type of person who brings out the best in others too.
The Pottersville version of Mary is presented as a cliché. She’s “an old maid”, but that's just dramatic shorthand for Mary not having her ideal life without George and their children. She’s the town librarian, the cliche old maid’s cliche job but it puts her in charge of one of the vestiges of Bedford Falls within Pottersville---just as Bedford Falls contains Pottersville, Pottersville still contains Bedford Falls, and Bedford Falls is an aspirational place. It sends some of its best and brightest out into the wide world while some it keeps at home to help improve the town. Mary and George are among the latter---or were. Without George, Mary has no one to join her in standing up for the communitarian values she and George shared and helped spread. Mary is lonely but not just because she didn’t marry George.
She's alone because she can't do it alone. Nobody can, not even George.
"No man is a failure who has friends."
George saves himself from despair. But his friends and neighbors save him from jail and by doing so save Bedford Falls which we know would have falenl under Potter's complete control as soon as George was out of the picture. If George had gone to jail, the effect would have been the same as if he'd never been born.
The natural corollary---the main theme of the movie---is that the "real" circumstances brought out the best in them, and since George is responsible for much of those circumstances, it's George who brought out the best of them and it's George not Bedford Falls itself who makes the town a decent, wholesome, and cheerful place to live.
Virtue isn't inherent in small towns nor is it inherent in people no matter where they live. Even George has has a darker side and selfish desires that intensify when circumstance turns against him, and I'm not talking just about the last act of the movie. His proposal to Mary is full of anguish and rage as he realizes he's giving up all his dreams for her and he doesn't want to and he blames her.
Capra, as Harris observes, didn't shy from depicting "the nervous hysteria to which hopelessness can drive a man." Think of Jefferson Smith rummaging desperately through the mailbags on the Senate floor, John Doe on the roof in the snow, and George Bailey proposing to Mary, confronting Uncle Billy, and begging Potter for help---the most harrowing and distressing and, perhaps, the most realistic scenes in those movies.
I've been thinking about It's A Wonderful Life because I just finished re-reading Five Came Back. But I've been thinking about the real life counterparts of Bedford Falls because of this column, by Business Insider Senior Editor Josh Barro which he apparently wrote in a fit of pique at a gaggle of Brooklyn hipsters at the next table who annoyed him at lunch.
The column, headlined Liberals can win again if they stop being so annoying and fix their ‘hamburger problem’, has been laughed at and ridiculed and taken apart six ways from Sunday, and Barro's probably sorry he wrote it or at least relieved the political news since it posted has pushed it out of readers' minds. But I'm always late to the party and one of the perks of being an independent blogger is the freedom to write about whatever's on your mind, even if it's yesterday's news---or last week's---instead of what's at the top of everybody's Twitter feed today.
Barro's premise is that there are a critical mass of Republicans sympathetic to the Democrats on many important issues and who are ready and willing to vote Democratic but they're put off by supercilious liberals who can't resist lecturing them on their lifestyle choices.
That Democrats are on solid political ground with the biggest planks of their culture-related policy agenda does not mean [National Review editor Rich Lowry] is wrong about the culture gap. What it does mean, I think, is that "cultural politics" is barely about public policy at all.
And liberals have staked out a wide variety of fundamentally non-policy positions on the culture that annoy the crap out of people, to their electoral detriment.
Let's discuss the hamburger example.
Suppose you're a middle-income man with a full-time job, a wife who also works outside the home, and some children. Suppose it's a Sunday in the early fall, and your plan for today is to relax, have a burger, and watch a football game.
Conservatives will say, "Go ahead, that sounds like a nice Sunday." (In the Trump era, they're not going to bother you about not going to church.) But you may find that liberals have a few points of concern they want to raise about what you mistakenly thought was your fundamentally nonpolitical plan for the day.
Liberals want you to know that you should eat less meat so as to contribute less to global warming. They're concerned that your diet is too high in sodium and saturated fat. They're upset that the beef in your hamburger was factory-farmed.
If it’s still bothering me enough in a few days, I may write a post dealing with Barro’s apparent unfamiliarity with the snack choices of fans watching football on TV at home with family and friends as opposed to at a sports bar or at the stadium, but, quickly---hamburgers during the game? Nachos, ok. Pizza, sure. Crabby snacks and homemades, definitely. But burgers? Never mind. I’ll stop there before I get worked up.
Liberals of a certain type can be annoying. In the early 1990s, they were getting so annoying around the college where I taught that I seriously considered becoming a Republican...for about twenty minutes. Fortunately I remembered that very few Democrats were white, middle-aged academics bitter about not having gotten that teaching gig at Harvard and that most Republican politicians were Right Wing racist assholes and/or Religious nuts.
How times haven't changed.
Barro is right about one thing. Republicans don't like being told what to do. But they're pretty clear about what it is they don't like, and it's not that they should only order hamburgers made with free range beef.
The main thing they don't like being told is they have to pay taxes to support government programs they don't see immediately and directly benefiting them.
But they really don't like it if they see the benefits going to you know who.
Beyond that, they don't like being told who they have to let live in their neighborhoods, who gets to go to school with their kids, who they have to hire, who they have to sell wedding cakes to, who they might have to share a public restroom with, and what words they can use to complain about all this.
They may not like having their lunch choices criticized, but that's because it's just plain rude and...annoying. But when they go to vote, it's not foremost on their minds.
Barro's not singing a new song. It's a variation on an old standard I've heard sung my whole voting life---and I've been voting for longer than Barro's been alive---and the tune was old when I first heard it. It was old when Pop Mannion was madly for Adlai while most of the country liked Ike.
The Democrats are the party of East and West Coast snobs and intellectual and cultural elitists while the Republicans are the party of the just plain folks who live, work, and shop on Main Street in the small towns of the Heartland.
And the implication is that the just plain folks are more virtuous, more genuine, more honest and decent, more true to the American grain than the snobs and elitists who are, well, snobs and elitists.
Actually, when you look at it, this is a trope that goes back to Aesop. Barro and all the other pundits who have tried to explain Trumpland to their fellow snobs and elitists are basically re-telling the story of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse.
There are good people and bad people everywhere in the United States, in small towns and big cities, on the coasts and in the Heartland, wherever that is. But there are relatively few of both. What there are mostly are people who are as good as they can be, given their circumstances, or know how to be, or have to be, and people who are as bad as they think they can get away with. That's true of Bedford Falls and Pottersville.
Thanks to George and Mary Bailey there are more people in town whose circumstances are such that being as good as they can be are actually makes them pretty good. But it's only because the Baileys’ circumstances give them the influence, and their circumstances are precarious. Running the Building and Loan is a shaky proposition. Part way through the movie, they almost lose it, and not through Potter's scheming. The Depression nearly pulls them under.
There's a run on the bank and they only manage to stay open because George and Mary give up their honeymoon and the money they'd saved to travel and persuade their depositors not to withdraw all their savings but take only as little as they'll need to get by for a few days. But while they are dealing with the crisis we see in the crowd the Pottersville that exists within Bedford Falls. We see the fear and the suspicion and the selfishness they’re all feeling, and not everyone behaves well. It wouldn’t take much for the rest of them to give into their worser impulses. All it would take, would have taken, and we can imagine did take would have been for George and Mary to have not been there.
For more than a century now, certain states and localities have been electing politicians dedicated to bringing out the worst in their constituents---or, to put it another way, the people living in those places been letting the worst in themselves decide their votes. On the national level, since 1960 the Republicans have nominated candidate after candidate whose campaign theme has been it's far from a wonderful life and it's Those people's fault. Those people being their fellow Americans.
Before Trump came along the most obvious and egregious purveyor of this destructive Us versus Them-ism was Richard Nixon. But I think Reagan was as bad or worse because he did it with a smile. Goldwater was pretty awful. McCain and Bob Dole ran nasty campaigns and of course McCain gave us Sarah Palin who gathered and incited the mobs Trump came alone to exploit. Mitt Romney seems genial and reasonable at a glance but he ran a campaign based on the idea that people are costs that need to be controlled, and Mr Potter would have no argument with that.
Us against Them was the theme of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. It's become the theme of his presidency. But more than that it's been the theme of his whole adult life.
He doesn't like or trust anybody who isn't Donald Trump, and for all his boasting and bragging, he doesn't seem all that fond of Donald Trump. He clowned his way through his rallies but he's essentially mirthless, and what laughter he engendered was mean-spirited and derisive and not much different in tone and no different in spirit than the angry hooting and hollering and the chants of Lock Her Up. He preached hatred and spread gloom---and self-doubt and self-loathing.
Trump isn't a Mr Potter, as much as his golf clubs, hotels, and casinos are self-contained Pottersvilles. Potter is good at what he does, more realistically limited in his ambition, and has, as far as we can tell, only the one vice, avarice. Trump, needless to say, has all of them. I suppose you could argue the case that he's the anti-George Bailey, but I wouldn't make too much of that. What he is, I think, is the embodiment of the sourness of spirit and lack of faith that pollutes the soul of every Bedford Falls. He's an expression of the meanness, pettiness, suspicion, fear, and resentment that reside in all of us and that are a main source of corruption in big city and small town life.
As such, he's nothing new and is squarely in the American grain.
Winning over Republicans will take more than refraining from criticizing their lunch meat.
It will take convincing them that it is a wonderful life and whatever’s less than wonderful can be made better...if we work together. We’re stronger when we work together.
If only the Democrats had run someone with a slogan like that.
If only the political media had noticed or cared the Republicans were running someone whose slogan meant just the opposite.
Make America Great Again isn't a hope-filled slogan. It's salt in the wound, a reminder of loss, and an obliquely phrased complaint: Where's mine? And it contains self-accusation. What did I do wrong?
Trump's answer was, Nothing. You didn't do it to yourself. They did it to you.
That's the difference between the ideal Bedford Falls and the all too real Pottersvilles.
There is no Them in Bedford Falls.
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris is available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
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