Americans love It’s A Wonderful Life but did not heed its main lessons, Part Two

Americans like the movie It’s A Wonderful Life (see its ranking according to the American Film Institute). Yet, I am not sure that those same viewers and reviewers have taken the morals of the film to heart. Part Two today:

George spirals downward because of financial problems at the savings and loan. Additionally, he was not sure about a life running the family business (which he thought his brother Harry would do). In the end, he finds joy in his family and friends in the community. The local relationships, from the local girl he married to the people who utilized the savings and loan, provide him reasons to keep living.

Yet, since the film came out (1946), Americans have moved away from the close-knit relationships. This has happened in two noticeable ways. The shift to suburbs from both big cities and more rural areas led to different kinds of social ties. Suburbanites can be fairly transient and build relationships around avoiding open conflict (see The Moral Order of a Suburb) and through local institutions (like school districts rather than because of immediate geographic proximity.

Additionally, sociologists and others have suggested Americans have fewer close friendships. Even if our social media and online friends and followers have exploded, these are different kinds of relationships compared to close relationships with people with interact with regularly in-person. Furthermore, advice columnists regularly suggest seeing therapists or counselors, more impartial third-party professionals, to work out issues.

Clarence shows George that the lives of those who cares about would be markedly different if he was not around. The closing scene finds the townspeople rallying around George and a proclamation that he is rich because of his relationships. How many people today would hope for such an ending? (Granted, this is a film so how often such joyous community celebrations happened is unknown.)

Of course, the appeal of It’s A Wonderful Life may just be its nostalgia for an age that seems long gone. In an often harried and disconnected world, Americans may yearn for a (fictional?) world where the good guys win, local companies and residents help each other, people have rich friendships, and people live in small towns. But, if anything, our collective decisions since the release of the film have likely moved us further away from these realities.

Americans love It’s A Wonderful Life but did not heed its main lessons, Part One

Americans like the movie It’s A Wonderful Life (see its ranking according to the American Film Institute). Yet, I am not sure that those same viewers and reviewers have taken the morals of the film to heart. Specifically, I will discuss two key themes and how American society has trended away from the lessons of the story.

The main villain, Mr. Potter, runs a heartless bank. In contrast, George Bailey continues in the family business and operates the local savings & loan. George wants to help local residents get into a new single-family home (which look like they are part of a new suburban subdivision). George ends up being the hero as he is a compassionate local businessman while Mr. Potter is cruel.

But, hasn’t the large, impersonal, profit-driven bank won out in American society, particularly as it comes to providing funding for single-family homes? Even as the film was made (in 1947), significant changes in the mortgage industry were already underway to help provide more long-term mortgages and government support for private mortgages. As the decades passed, more and more local banks were bought by national and international banks. The savings and loans organizations disappeared, particularly toward the end of the 20th century. The housing bubble of the late 2000s largely involved huge financial institutions who had invested in mortgages. The situation is a far cry from the era depicted in the film.

The megabanks of today may be more impersonal than cruel but the idea is the same: they do not have as much interest in local communities as George Bailey and his family. George’s institution needs to make money and he seems to be doing okay with a home and job. but it also feels a responsibility toward local residents. Even if Americans say they like the idea of small businesses and local businesses that part of communities, haven’t they given over control or assented to a financial system dominated by large firms?

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.

Looking at Seneca Falls, New York, “the real Bedford Falls” in It’s a Wonderful Life

Social Explorer, a cool tool for looking at demographic data, takes a quick look at the New York community that was the inspiration for Bedford Falls in the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life:

Producer and director Frank Capra set the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life in the fictional small town of Bedford Falls, NY.  The actual town of Seneca Falls, NY, claims to be Capra’s inspiration.   The town hosts the annual It’s a Wonderful Life Festival and visitors can explore the history at the museum dedicated to the legend…

Back in 1940, Seneca County had 25,732 residents, of whom 99.5 percent were white and 0.5 percent were black.  Nearly a third of the county’s foreign born population (32.0 percent) hailed from Italy, more than both statewide (one fifth) and nationwide (one seventh).  Many foreign born residents also came from Germany (10.2 percent) and England and Wales (9.1 percent).

Today, Seneca County has grown 37.1 percent to 35,285 residents, while the state grew 43.2 percent and the nation grew 133.0 percent.  Seneca County remains predominately white (92.9 percent) with a small but growing black population (4.3 percent).  According to 2006-10 ACS data, today 4.6 percent of the foreign born population comes from Italy.  Larger shares of newcomers come from other countries including Canada (17.4 percent), India (11.2 percent), Laos (6.1 percent), Ukraine (5.1 percent), and Poland (3.6 percent).

The top occupations in 1940 were:

  • Proprietors/Managers/Official (20.9 percent)
  • Craftmen/Foremen/Kindred Workers (16.4 percent)
  • Operatives/Kindred Workers (15.0 percent)
  • Laborers (13.9 percent)

Of the adult residents, 18.2 percent had completed high school (or more) and 3.0 percent had graduated from college, which were both smaller percentages than in the state (22.9 percent and 5.5 percent) and nation (24.1 percent and 4.6 percent).

Sounds like small town life that may not be much different today. The movie seems to provide more information about the “feel” of the community rather than the demographics. George Bailey is trying to build suburban-type homes and is thwarted by the evil banker in the community. By the end of the film, Bailey and other average citizens in the community are shown to be decent people who rally together in times of need. Does this story necessarily line up with the ancestry of the community or the top occupations? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps demography is not narrative destiny in this case. Perhaps the best way to attack this issue would be to compare the demographics of Seneca County in 1940 to other typical small towns and counties and see how “representative” the movie demographics might have been.