How can we rebuild culture and community in a world where we seem to be glued together in pragmatic tribes, looking across the divide at deadly enemies? One answer is to rediscover the parts of life that make up the whole of a healthy community, and what better way to embark on our study of the meaning of community than to take a closer look at what we see in the Bedford Falls of “It’s a Wonderful Life”?

In 2005, nearly 60 years after its release, It’s a Wonderful Life appeared in the #1 place on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years 100 Cheers – America’s Most Inspiring Movies” list. Yet when It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946, it was not overwhelmingly successful at the box office. Director Frank Capra and the cast were rather disappointed. Capra had hoped the film would do well, since he saw it as the film he had been “waiting his whole life to make.” In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra speculated that many postwar moviegoers did not want to be confronted with some of the heavy themes presented in the film.

For many years, It’s a Wonderful Life was forgotten, and eventually the copyright ran out in 1974. Around this time it began to air on television during the Christmas season. In the 1970s a new generation fell in love with the film, especially its upbeat message and nostalgic portrayal of hometown America. Within a few years, it was so popular that it had become a Christmas tradition in many homes. Today the film is a classic that will never again be allowed to sit on the shelf and collect dust. Frank Capra’s vision to elevate the human spirit through this powerful story has finally come true.

Teaching the Rising Generation about Culture and Community

We live in a time when many people are suffering from isolation and alienation from their families. Postmodern philosophy professors continue the drumbeat, telling our kids they are nothing but a “clump of cells,” yet can “be all they can be.”

The social and moral norms that once knitted the fabric of our culture together have been disappearing from our communities and in film for the past 50 years. There is a continuous conversation on social media about the decline of human flourishing and the hatred and contempt that degrades our political landscape. Yet proposals for what can be done are few and far between.

How can we rebuild culture and community in a world where we seem to be glued together in pragmatic tribes, looking across the divide at deadly enemies? How and where do we begin to rebuild? One answer is to rediscover the parts of life that make up the whole of a healthy community and discuss this with the kids who have never experienced it. What better way to embark on our study of the meaning of community than to take a closer look at what we see in Bedford Falls that we do not see in Pottersville?

Along the way we can gain wisdom from Saint John Henry Newman who argued for the primacy of the imagination when we are grasping for the meaning of reality: “The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.”

Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville

It’s a Wonderful Life gives us a “big picture” view of what makes a community strong, real, and vibrant. Even in a time when so many of us have not experienced genuine community life, Frank Capra helps us to recognize it.

The people who live in Bedford Falls are a part of something greater than themselves. To survive, a community or a civil society must have enough people with the humility to know this is the case. Too often in our society today we have people at the top who “have it all” and people at the bottom who are barely surviving. Isn’t it time for those of us in the shrinking middle to start acting as if we share a common humanity with the folks at the top and the folks at the bottom?

Strong communities do not just happen. In Capra’s vision of genuine community, sacrifices have to be made, personal time must be invested, and sustained effort put into forming friendships.

The marriage of George and Mary Bailey is seen as a foundational structure that frames a way of life in community and civil society. When the hard times come, we have to be able to rely on people we can trust and they must be able to rely on us. This assumes that we must know one another well enough for trust to be possible. Capra grasps these concepts and depicts them brilliantly in the sequences right after George and Mary get married.

George and Mary witness a run on the bank. George explains to the investors that their homes are really an investment in everyone else’s home as well. This turns out to be one of the best scenes in classic movie history to explain what the common good is all about. George reassures everybody that: “We can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”

We only see glimpses of life in Pottersville, but what we see is that people are not happy. Ernie is an unfriendly, bitter and divorced man. Nick is no longer a kind bartender but a bully, and Violet is being arrested and dragged to jail.

George has touched many lives by the choices he made every day. It is important to recognize that every single person has a gift to give to others. Their absence leaves a hole in the fabric of society and the world would never be the same without them.

Clarence brings the lesson home: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Recognition of an Indisputable Truth comes from Shared Sensory Experience: George Bailey and Mr. Gower

Literature and Drama created in the classic realist vision of human nature allow us to see the human condition as it is: fallen, yet capable of redemption, with the elements of good and evil of our common humanity mixed and variable. Films made in the mode of Classic Realism light up both sides of our brains: imagination, reason, moral sense and memory all working together. There will always be a few hard-core radical individualists, relativists or fatalists who will not like It’s a Wonderful Life, but even they will have a hard time dismissing it.

In classic storytelling, the subplots work together to form a compelling whole. I knew this intuitively from the many years I have been developing classic film study guides, but a stark confirmation of the power of classic realism in film came from another source on Youtube. A man who said he couldn’t stand the film posted the two contrasting scenes between Mr. Gower and the young George Bailey and Mr. Gower as a hopeless drunk in the fantasy sequence. The man said that even though he couldn’t stand the movie he was posting the two scenes because he weeps every time he sees them.

With our imagination we take in these images and ideas and they pass to our reason. We gain a powerful understanding of how human beings are connected to each other and how we bear a deep and mysterious moral responsibility for one another. With its powerful images of family, friendship and community, even a postmodern philosopher would be persuaded and moved by the film’s human truths just like the rest of us.

Republished with gracious permission from the author. This essay originally appeared on her website, Classic Films and Our Common World, which is a project of the Educational Guidance Institute.

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All images are stills from It’s a Wonderful Life and are in the public domain.

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