Steve Greydanus Defends “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Steve Greydanus Defends “It’s a Wonderful Life” January 10, 2013

Go Steve!

I’m glad First Things is publishing this, since they offered the incredibly wrong-headed and misbegotten piece a couple of weeks ago attacking the film on amazingly specious grounds.  (Although the wrong-headedness of the critique was at least in favor of saving Bedford Falls and not in exalting Mr. Potter as the moral lunatics of the postmodern Left are wont to to do.)

I simply cannot grasp the mentality that would dislike this film.  I’m reminded of Auden’s remark that he could not trust the literary judgment of anybody who disliked The Lord of the Rings.  I think of Chesterton’s comment somewhere to the effect that there is, in every human heart, a thing that likes sunshine, fresh air, the sound of wind in the trees, and the laughter of children.  That thing, he said, loves Dickens.  He took it as a basic sign of health.  I regard love for “It’s a Wonderful Life” in much the same way.  Is it s a flawless film?  Of course not.  But the instincts of the film (and frankly, of Capra’s moral vision in all his films) is just basically healthy and oriented toward the Good.  To dislike it seems a lot more like a judgment against the critic than against the film

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  • Dr. Eric

    I’ll sum up my comments at First Things with: Mary Hatch Bailey is the real hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Great article.

    And it’s a great movie to highlight a lot of what is wrong with modern conservatism. Most of my family, who are very well-meaning Republicans, think they are defending the values of George Bailey by voting Republican. But the GOP has been dominated by the Potters of the world for the past 30 years.

    And no, I’m not saying the Democrats are the good guys. They’re not. We have a country run by two Parties full of morally bankrupt miscreants.

  • Good article. I wrote a defense of It’s a Wonderful Life a few years back, defending it against some of the articles Greydanus mentions at the outset. You have to wonder about the mindset of people who think the town would be better off with more brothels, or who claim that the George who wakes up Christmas morning is in the same position he was the night before. Either that, or you have to wonder if there is another It’s a Wonderful Life out there that I don’t know about.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    To be fair, It’s A Wonderful Life does suffer one extreme flaw: The Bad Guy gets away with it! We can speculate on what happened the next day, that Potter was brought to justice. But it’s all speculation. For all we know, George’s family had to suffer through a long trial where he is barely exonerated, while Potter chuckles away.

    • Not at all–the arresting officer tears up the warrant at the end of the film and adds his five dollars to the pile. George is fine. Potter is held in abeyance as ever, and the savings and loan is probably on a firmer financial footing than ever before.

  • Chris

    What’s funny is that Deneen (the “wrongheaded” critic) never said he didn’t like the film or that it was bad. His attack was on the direction housing development went post WWII and he used the film as an entry point to that critique because of how it implicitly assumes that those developments can and should occur. That seems to me to be a salient point, and one that I can appreciate while acknowledging that the movie is a wonderful film. His point wasn’t that George Bailey was a bad man but rather that, all across the country, well meaning people like him built developments that sapped towns of their vitality and atomized people and families. It’s a fair point, and to say that he attacked the film is to miss what he actually said.

    • Jon W

      But that’s not even close to what the movie was about. The movie wasn’t about the goodness of Levittown, and if Deneen chose that bit to quibble with, he’s like the people who refuse to read Tolkien because he doesn’t treat orcs with the respect due to real moral agents with free will.

  • Rachel K

    I knew someone who hated “It’s a Wonderful Life” because it’s so soul-crushingly depressing until the last ten minutes or so; he knew that the uplift was coming but could never sit through watching George Bailey suffer for two hours to get there. That’s the only anti-“It’s a Wonderful Life” argument I’ve ever heard that I can respect.

    • Mark Shea

      It’s a very dark movie. That’s true. Sort of like the Passion. 🙂

      • My kids hate ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, which my wife and I found difficult to understand until they explained. They hate George’s yelling at Mary all the time, they hate the scenes of violence against children – George getting smacked around by the pharmacist; George yelling at his daughter at the piano, they hate the general dark and violent tone.

        It’s just not a kid’s movie. I hope I didn’t ruin it for them by subjecting them to it before they become adults.

        • Christina

          I watched the movie for the first time this year (36 and pregnant with my 4th child) and fell in love with it. I don’t think I would have appreciated it before I was married with kids.

        • SDG

          I’ve shown it to my kids every Christmas for years. Our whole family dearly loves the film.

      • Alias Clio

        I think that “It’s A Wonderful Life” follows the traditional format of fairy tales; so too does the story of the Passion, as J.R.R. Tolkien once pointed out: An apparently ordinary hero or heroine starts out living an ordinary life. Some calamity befalls him (often he becomes an orphan). He is then put through a series of trials of ever-increasing difficulty; and finally, just at the moment when all appears to be lost, something happens – not exactly a divine intervention, but some moment of reversal that makes the good more powerful than the strong – that sweeps away the enemy and allows the hero to triumph, though not perhaps in the way he or we might have hoped.

        I suspect that’s what makes the movie so dark to some people, although George’s anger, the movie’s strongest theme, aside from the theme of redemption, definitely adds to its darkness. Notice that George doesn’t get what he wants – he never does become an architect, or get to Europe. Worse, he doesn’t even triumph over Potter by his own efforts, exactly. First, it’s his wife who goes out, drums up support among his old friends, and saves the Building and Loan Co. So George Bailey doesn’t have the classic American gumption to go out and hustle his friends when he needs help. What’s more, without the support of those friends, his company would have collapsed. It’s not as if it was his own careful planning that rescued it. In fact, George is not at all a classic self-reliant American hero. On the other hand, it was George who, through the years, held fast to his understanding of friendship, loyalty, and above all, commitment. And it was this steadfast quality in him that made all his friends come through for him in the end. But not before he had every reason to believe that they would not. After all, many of them had been millstones around his neck for decades, from his point of view, preventing him from doing what he liked, and becoming what he dreamed.

        That’s why the movie is so depressing. Unless you understand that there’s more to life than fulfillment.

    • SDG

      Anyone who finds It’s a Wonderful Life soul-crushing until the last ten minutes needs to learn to watch movies.

      It is a film with significant darkness, yes, but also a profoundly inspiring, uplifting film with a great deal of joy and love amid the disappointments and failure.

      Like life.

  • Confederate Papist

    Good job SDG! I really enjoyed your defence of the movie. There is a little George Bailey in every one of us, which is why the movie is so popular.

  • I think there is a really valid “Front Porch Republic” sort of point to be made about how Bailey Park is a bad model of development: suburban sprawl estranges families from solidarity their neighbors and saps community strength, ultimately wasting away any subsidiarity. Given its financing, Bailey Park sounds a lot like the sort of well-intentioned liberal greenlining that led in part to the housing bubble, too. That said, it’s still it’s a really, really, really tangential point compared to the main, extremely humane thrust of a truly great film.

    • Not true.

      As I wrote in the comments in First Things, we had the choice to move downtown into a house like Ma Bailey’s or to a suburb like Bailey Park. In the suburb, we knew all our neighbors, conversed with them regularly and even tread on each other’s yards. If we would have chosen the Victorian house downtown, all of the neighbors would have been yuppies who didn’t have kids nor were ever in their homes to visit. Also, downtown, there are no parks, no grocery stores, etc.

      • Hmm. That’s an interesting response. I’ll give that some thought. Thanks!

  • Whenever I hear Tea Partiers or Paulistas saying that austerity (allowing debtors and businesses to go bankrupt) is the best solution to the debt crisis, I like to point out that it’s the solution old man Potter would love — and profit from.

    After all, that’s how he came to own most of Bedford Falls. Capra’s original audience wouldn’t have missed that point, because they’d lived through the Depression and had seen the impact of foreclosures.

  • I agree with everything you say in praise of the movie, but its angelology sets my teeth on edge every time I see it. Capra bears a sizable share of responsibility for the fact that so many Americans think of angels as the transfigured ghosts of dead humans, rather than the separate order of beings orthodox Christians (and Jews and Muslims, for that matter) have unanimously believed them to be throughout the millennia. That really is a shame, since orthodox angelology anticipates contemporary thought in some surprising ways and familiarity with orthodox angelology can assure Christians that they needn’t panic when those trends in contemporary thought come up. For example, Thomas Aquinas describes angels as one-dimensional beings not subject to time in the usual sense; familiarity with that concept should assure Christians that String Theory, while it may not turn out to be right, is not a Satanic conspiracy to undermine faith.

    • Wow. That’s even more persnickety than the Bailey Park complaint, but it’s actually a great point. Unrelatedly: I finally saw “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the very first time (in a theater, no less) last month, and it was just awesome. Glad I finally caught it.

  • CK

    Patrick Deneen, the author of the piece at issue, is a faithful, right-headed man who stands what is true, good, and beautiful in the country. Deneen is one of the rare thoughtful conservatives who demands our respect and attention. His critique of George Bailey is consistent with his critique of all of us Americans, which is that we long to be somewhere else. For more from Deneen, listen here in his thoughtful discussion on “A Preferential Option for Staying Put.”

    • Mark Shea

      No argument from me. But I thought his take on IAWL was nonetheless wrong-headed.

    • SDG


      “His critique of George Bailey is consistent with his critique of all of us Americans, which is that we long to be somewhere else.”

      If Deenan had only said that, I would have had no quarrel with him.

      When he claims that George Bailey “destroys” Bedford Falls, that there are “no trees” in Bailey Park, and that George commits “sacrilege” by paving over the old cemetery, then, however worthy his opinions about other topics, he needs his ears slapped back like young George in drunken Mr. Gower’s back office.