Sociological musings about American culture in “It’s A Wonderful Life”

This talk by a sociologist about It’s A Wonderful Life serves as a reminder that the film provides a nice window into modern American life. Although it is a holiday movie, here are a few sociological ideas that still resonate today:

1. Mr. Potter is the evil banker and the primary villain. While hero George Bailey just wants to help his family and others in the community, the banker only cares about money. Could be connected to discussions of inequality, the wealth of bankers, and the role of the finance industry in helping to build communities.

2. Hero George Bailey wants to build suburban-like homes in a new subdivision in his community. The movie came out at the beginning of the post-World War II suburban boom and anticipates that many Americans simply want a home of their own.

3. The movie is set in a relatively small town where George Bailey and his family can know lots of people. Even as Americans look to private single-family homes, there is still often a small-town ideal where everyone gets along and helps each other (and often the assumption that we have lost this over time).

4. George Bailey seeks meaning in his work and life. When he doesn’t find it, he considers suicide. Bailey wants to provide for his family and friends and struggles when he cannot do this.

5. George’s life is saved by an angel. Americans tend to like angels even as more Americans say they are not religious. Angels fit with a spirituality where God generally wants people to succeed.

6. The celebratory ending of the film comes as George is surrounded by his family and friends. The emphasis on family life is not unusual in American stories but this also highlights the small town coming together. Bailey has the American Dream at the end: a home, a loving family, helpful friends, and is optimistic about his future.

Of course, this film has been analyzed plenty as a classic sitting at #20 on the AFI’s top 100 movies. Yet, it is an important moment as America started seeing itself as the prosperous superpower.