In a number of ways, It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic American holiday tale: George Bailey fights the big banker, the importance of family is stressed, and people pursue single-family homes in new subdivisions. But one scholar suggests another dimension is appealing to people today: the geographic stability of characters in the movie.
Part of the appeal today of the “It’s A Wonderful Life” story may be the geographic stability that the film depicts.
Sparks pointed to research reported in 1943 in the Journal of Sociology that 75 percent of the couples to be married in New Haven, Conn., and Philadelphia lived within 20 blocks of each other while growing up.
He said that’s essentially the lifestyle reflected in the movie’s setting, Bedford Falls — a fictionalized town where people were born, grew up, raised families and lived out their lives.
“The relationships you formed in Bedford Falls were for life,” Sparks said. “This is in stark contrast to the way we live today, and I think that most of us sense that as we have become more mobile, we’ve lost something.”
There is an intimacy among the characters of the film that is appealing to some viewers, and George Bailey is even brought back from the pit of despair after seeing how his absence would negatively affect both his family and his friends. The interesting suggestion here is that these relationships are embedded in a particular geographic context that matters. George is known around the town and he fights for a better community, not just for the people he knows. This is most tangibly demonstrated by the conflict George has with Mr. Potter, the banker. George simply wants to offer residents of Bedford Falls a taste of the American Dream (which looks much like the post-war suburbs) with cheap rent. To state it in a slightly different way, it’s not just the relationships that are important but the space they help make and are shaped by.
Another way to think about this would be to imagine trying to make a movie with these themes today. Movies about relationships are not unusual. However, is it plausible to put George Bailey within a 2011 community that has such tight relationships? Without focusing on some small group or subculture, how many movies present truly interconnected relationships within communities? Most movies about the suburbs or small towns tend to focus on dysfunction. I have little doubt that academics have contributed to this image by decrying the blandness, striving, and hidden lives of suburbanites.
While It’s a Wonderful Life may seem like it is from a very different era, Americans have expressed a desire to live in small towns. A 2009 Pew survey found that while suburban Americans were most satisfied with their communities, 30% said they would prefer to live in small towns versus 25% in suburbs, 21% in cities, and 21% in rural areas. Of course, the boundaries between these different types may be very different in the minds of Americans, and within the Census boundaries, one might be able to find all four types within a metropolitan region.