After listening to Glenn Beck read my blog post on his radio show last week, dismissing my point regarding progressive themes of the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, I admit, I had a brief moment of self-doubt. Was it possible that I had gotten the movie entirely wrong? So, last night, I watched it again.
Not only was I not wrong, but the movie, which stars Jimmy Stewart as the hero George Bailey, is actually far more progressive than I had remembered. (It’s also a great movie. I still can’t get through without tearing up the scene where a drunk and grieving Mr. Gower hits the young George Bailey. “Please don’t hit my sore ear again, Mr. Gower!”)
And not only was I not wrong, but Beck’s latest stunt—like others in which he has attempted to appropriate iconic American figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., or moments such as the founding of the country—is just another effort to refashion American history to conform to his vision of the “real” America.
In this case, Beck’s been using the movie to promote a visit he’s making to the economically hard-hit town of Wilmington, Ohio. He has said, inaccurately, that the town has taken no government money and that its residents’ economic plan is based on praying to God to provide. In that sense, he argues, Wilmington is trying to mimic Bedford Falls, the fictional town where It’s a Wonderful Life is set, as opposed to the movie’s fictional slum of Pottersville.
Although the film is not devoid of religious and political themes, it has long been regarded as a classic treatment of small-town life and the power of the little guy to overcome the perfidy of greedy bigwigs. But truthfully, the movie’s broader universal themes are ones that transcend politics and religion. It’s a message that in the end, we are all our brothers’ keepers. (I hope the biblical reference doesn’t sound too socialist for Beck.)
But Beck, in his zeal to appropriate the film for his own politically divisive purposes, claims that it demonstrates the evils of government intervention in business. Despite Beck’s apparent belief to the contrary, however, the villain in the movie wasn’t the government, but the corrupt banker Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore.
In his radio broadcast last Wednesday, Beck read my post and dismissed the idea that there were progressive themes in the movie. (Either he or his show’s producer also called me “screwy” while doing a pretty darn good Jimmy Stewart impression.)
Who saved the Building & Loan in Bedford Falls? The people did. George did, with his own private funds. The government didn’t bail him out, and that’s the deal. You remember the bank was bailing everyone out … along with the government closing down the banks. The banks and the government were in collusion. … The local banks were the ones that didn’t have a problem. It’s the gigantic banks run by people like [Mr.] Potter that were just trying to get rich and didn’t care about people. The local banks are the George Baileys. That’s not progressive. Progressive is about going past the Constitution and having people at a government level babysit people because they’re all too stupid.
What Beck is saying, I believe—although it’s difficult to know for sure, because his logic is so hard to follow—is that the government was in bed with the big, evil banks, and that the good-guy local banks were successful because they were free from government regulation. This depiction matches his thesis about today’s economic problems: that too much government intervention in the form of bank bailouts is the inherent evil—as opposed to the absence of regulation that led to the banks’ implosion at the hands of, well, you know, greedy bigwigs.
To Beck, the bank bailouts are evidence of socialism—the government controlling business—as opposed to the reality that the big banks got a free regulatory ride for so long, and that their political power is so vast, that the government had to bail them out to save the world economy from collapse, leaving the consumers ripped off and taxpayers footing the bill.
Similarly, Beck asserts that Mr. Potter was evil, not because he was a greedy bigwig, but because he was in collusion with the government. Like his portrayal of our current economic woes, this is just more Beck demagoguery. What he conveniently dissmisses is that Pottersville, as depicted in It’s a Wonderful Life, was solely the making of the unregulated free market—the impact of Mr. Potter’s iron-fisted monopoly on the town. He also neglects to mention that Bedford Falls’ survival was due to competition from the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan, a communally owned organization.
And here’s a crucial historical fact Beck omits: During the Great Depression, the government passed legislation in response to the kind of monopolies that Mr. Potter’s bank held in small communities and their predatory mortgage lending practices. This government intervention paved the way for banks just like Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, which Beck admits was the savior in the movie.
In one great scene, Mr. Potter chastises Peter Bailey for not immediately foreclosing on a homeowner who ran into financial trouble. He says that the compassion of the Building & Loan fosters a “discontented lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.” One can almost hear Mr. Potter’s words echoing in the words of CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, who some credit with launching the Tea Party movement with his on-air rant about the government “promoting bad behavior” by offering foreclosure assistance.
In another strange point, apparently in response to my statement that he’s trying to turn the movie into “a rallying cry for the conservative anti-government Christian right,” Beck asserted that Life clearly is a Christian movie, because it is a Christmas movie “with an angel and God.” Yes, it’s a Christmas movie, and, yes, there are religious themes, but that doesn’t make it a “Christian movie.” And it certainly doesn’t make it a conservative, anti-government Christian right movie. But in Glenn Beck’s world, he can’t seem to imagine any other brand of religion, Christian or otherwise. The role of the divine, in the form of Clarence the Angel, was a passive deity whose contributions were to feign drowning so George Bailey had to rescue him and to point out the man’s lifetime of good works.
In the oddest twist of this whole episode, though, during the red-baiting era in which the film was produced, the FBI had concerns about its supposedly communist message. Director Frank Capra was a complicated man; no liberal himself, he hired screenwriters who ranged from New Deal Democrats to card-carrying communists. According to the New York Times:
One of Capra’s great strengths as a director in the 1930s was his ability to work with anyone who had something to contribute to his pictures, even those who were far to his left. He was also enough of a popular entertainer to cater to his audiences; he understood that during the Depression the most hissable villains were grasping bankers and businessmen.
From a 1947 FBI internal memo:
With regard to the picture “It’s a Wonderful Life”, [redacted] stated in substance that the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a “scrooge-type” so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.
In addition, [redacted] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [redacted] related that if he made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiner in connection with making loans. Further, [redacted] stated that the scene wouldn’t have “suffered at all” in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [redacted] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and “I would never have done it that way.”
The FBI fretted that this portrayal of the consummate capitalist as the film’s villain promoted communism. But Beck, a propagandist, not a historian, applies his typical distortions to paint Potter as a progressive, which in Beck’s mind is someone who favors government takeover of big business, even though there’s no evidence in the movie—as now—that the government is seeking to run the banks instead of private enterprise.
Perhaps the saddest part to this whole exercise has been the response I have received from Beck’s supporters, which can be summed up as follows: Mr. Potter was bad. Progressivism is bad. Therefore Mr. Potter was a progressive.
Even if they sat down and watched the movie tonight, I doubt they would change their minds. For them, Beck said it was so and that’s all they need to hear.
© Religion Dispatches 2010