Decades ago, many American films were made about good guys who patently sacrificed for others in war and peace, like George Bailey, the working class hero of Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Originally created to be a Christmas movie, today it’s considered one of the best 100 American films ever made. Bailey is a hero who sacrificed for his family and the common good. Today’s he’d be part of the 99%, challenging the 1% me-crowd.
But what does it all mean . . .
For all of its poignancy, even its earned sentimentality, It’s a Wonderful Life, highlights the power of one man’s ability to do great good not harm to the world. It also reflects the darker realities of pre-war World War II, an America still caught in the Great Depression and the grips of greedy bankers like Henry F. Potter, so like much those of today, the 1%, feeding on the 99% everyday people struggling to survive. Third, the film mirrors the bond that poverty and hard times created among Americans, actually strengthened by our entry into the war, one worth fighting, that inspired young men like Harry, George’s brother, to sign up for.
The film script, based on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern, The Greatest Gift, was written by Capra and three other screenwriters. It was crafted as a morality tale, contrasting the ruthless banker, wheelchair-bound Henry F. Potter and his attempts to make the board of directors stop providing home loans for the working poor. In our time, we have seen the poor singled out for loans they couldn’t afford so that they would default on them. Those loans were then collateralized into securities and resold, dispossessing the homeowners and causing investors to lose billions to bloated investment banks. It’s amazing this film, produced and directed by Capra in the late 40’s, evokes the conditions now present in our own Depression.
The “alternate reality” of Bedford Falls, with and without Bailey, is a brilliant device as well. With Bailey around, the small American town is friendly and full of possibility. Without Bailey, it’s a town sunk in honky-tonks and pawn shops, where even the friendly neighborhood cop turns into the enemy of the people, who themselves have withdrawn into selfishness, self-indulgence, and a poverty of spirit as well as of the pocket.
Having grown up in wartime and the post WW II era, I remember the closeness of the people. The enemy was known and being fought and neighbors felt like extended family, all working for us to conquer the Axis of Germany, Japan and Italy. There wasn’t this endless War on Terror, with all kinds of vagueness and lying about who were terrorists or not. Coming from an Italian-American family, I never felt stigmatized by that relationship the way Muslims, say, are stigmatized by the fiction that 9/11 was the result solely of 19 mad Muslims, who ironically gave Bush and his war-criminal government the power to attack Afghanistan, then Iraq through a series of other lies that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And then onwards we marched, it seems, to attack the rest of the world.
Perhaps back then there were too many Italian-Americans in the US and the military to be picked on. The tragic events of the rise of Mussolini and his motorcycle-riding brown shirts, was also depicted in another film masterpiece, Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, Romagnol for “I remember.” The story’s told through the eyes of Fellini the boy, mixing the comic foibles and humanity of the Italian people in sharp contrast to the brute brown shirt fascists and their posturing dictator. At the end of the war, the people hung him by his feet with his mistress for causing the destruction of their country.
Also in the film, Fellini’s father is a doctor/activist, who is humiliated by the brown shirts, force-feeding him cod-liver oil and sending him home soiling himself. That kind of humiliation was punishment for those who spoke out; there were beatings or torture for others and death for many as well.
This was the last time fascism hit so hard, with its tri-part Axis, attempting to dominate, to murder and plunder the whole world. It is interesting how the two great filmmakers and their films mirrored these wars, which in retrospect we know now were underwritten in part by American elites, 1 percenters Prescott Bush et al, and notable British Royals, who sympathized with the Nazis.
It is in striking contrast to the America I remember as extended family in WW II, one willing to see the nation as one people committed to defeating a common enemy. Now, it seems the American people have become the enemy of the government, with its latest effort to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (S.1253). This treasonous and unconstitutional bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and House. The good news late Tuesday, December 13, was Americans citizens were exempted from the provisions of indefinite military detention without charge, trial or even evidence. But those conditions were in force for everyone else in the world caught conspiring with Al Qaeda or other terror organizations.
Yet, by Wednesday evening the news, according to Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who authored the bill and is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was that “the language which precluded the application of Section 1031 to American citizens was in the bill that we originally approved . . . and the administration (President Obama) asked us to remove the language which says that U.S. citizens and lawful residents would not be subject to this section.” Thus speaks the constitutional lawyer, buckling to the unconstitutional NDAA’s unlawful language.
This, along with the unconscionable thefts of the financial markets, seem to be stealing the last vestiges of that once Wonderful Life America provided particularly in its post-war boom, including affordable home ownership, a G.I. Bill (Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) to help educate veterans, help with low-cost housing loans and low-cost small business loans to rebuild the economy in general, a sharp contrast to our treatment of veterans today. Of course, even then the dark forces of the O.S.S. and Operation Gladio were spreading their leave-behind armies to quell social advancement. The dark shadows created by the O.S.S. were soon to morph into the C.I.A. and its shadow spread around the world.
Thus, the American dream, so aptly and beautifully depicted in It’s A Wonderful Life, is fading today like an old print, and can only to be restored by a return to the core values of a George Bailey, interest in the common good and the destruction of a corrupt financial industry wrecking the economy, like Henry F. Potter, the heartless slumlord , majority shareholder in Bailey’s Building and Loan Company. He is comparable to the leaders of the Big Six Banks of today, destroying investors with “weapons of financial mass destruction,” to quote Warren Buffet. See his chain letter for revamping the Congress.
The real “wonderful life,” like the film, has to be made over totally, as FDR did America, creating new laws protecting the markets, which provided us with our financial sustenance. The slashing and burning of those laws that protected us from financial and political totalitarianism undoes the freedoms we fought for in WW II and won. Whatever spoils of war accrued to us were second to the fight for freedom, albeit undermined by the rise of those dark forces in our culture that swerved stealthily towards international lawlessness, led by the Pentagon and Department of Defense, which always seem on the offense.
If Bedford Falls as America is not to become Pottersville, as in Potters Field, “an American term for a place for the burial of unknown or indigent people, an expression that derives from the Bible, referring to a field used for the extraction of potter’s clay, which was useless for agriculture but could be used as a burial site . . .” If a return to widespread poverty and anonymous individuals without funds for an adequate burial in a two-tiered ruler-slave society is our future, then we have no future at all, only a past, a beginning at democracy and a historical decent into oligarchic oblivion. Yes, it is that darkness, like a movie theater, in which the vision of a better life flashes from the memory to the screen of consciousness—and must be retrieved.
Are we good enough for it? Do we deserve it? Will the world turn on us as we did on the Axis and crushed it? Your guess is as good as mine concerning the present State of the Union and those who misgovern it. There is an existential causality that shapes states to rise or fall, a predictable morphology as in Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written in the 18th Century, providing a paradigm that America too closely follows in the 21st Century. It would be wise to learn the lessons of the past so they won’t be repeated again, with all their carnage, destruction and pain. Such relentless depravity as we see today is not rewarded by endless success.
It’s time for our heroes to appear from anonymity like the brave young people of Occupy Wall Street to save the Republic again. This will be the masterpiece of our time, available on all the social media for viewing as it happens. Somewhere I see the gangly ghost of George Bailey (James Stewart), stuttering his truth to a crowd, on the street or in the Congress. And once more I hear the crowds cheer him. Yet I also hear the sound of police sirens in the background racing to silence him. This cannot stand, America. This cannot stand!
Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer, life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.