It’s A Wonderful Life: Individual vs. Community

[Piano music] As we sink deeper into the fever dream that is this unusually divisive and fear filled season, it’s nice to have an antidotal feeling in the form of winter holidays. Throughout which, despite being co-opted by Hallmark commercialism, a sense of family, of coming together predominates. My family ritual of this time of year is the annual broadcast of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. What was once a postwar box office flop has become a cultural phenomenon, recognized as one of the great cinematic masterpieces by one of our very best directors. Watching it, of course, it’s tempting to brush off this film as overly sentimental an nostalgic, which it is. But I think we judge it like this at our own peril. Indeed, with It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra interrogates some of the key contradictions at the heart of American life to see whether or not they can be reconciled or if, in fact, they don’t exist at all. Contradictions between the individual and the community, between adventure and domesticity and between success and an ordinary life. He stages these contradictions in the figure of George Bailey, a citizen of the small town of Bedford Falls and the president of the local Building & Loan. As the film begins, we don’t know exactly what has happened to George; only that he’s in serious trouble and has reached the end of his rope and that he’s about to be aided by divine intervention in the form of a guardian angel seeking to earn his wings. We learn about George’s life as his angle does in a series of flashbacks. “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him, don’t you?” George, we learn, has big dreams of leaving Bedford Falls, traveling the world and becoming a metropolitan architect. “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!” But his selflessness, his drive to do the right thing, repeatedly comes in the way of these dreams. We also learn about Bedford Falls, a close knit community of mostly good people leading simple lives, which is under the constant threat of being taken over by a ruthless business man called Mr. Potter. The only thing standing in Potter’s way is George Bailey, his father and their empathetic Building & Loan operation. The foil to Potter, the clear representation of corruption and evil in the film, is not George himself but Mary Hatch, George’s eventual wife, a compassionate young woman who is quite happy to stay and live in Bedford Falls. It’s important to note that both Potter and Mary show up in every flashback, representing George’s desires for fame and fortune on the one hand, and his drive to do the right thing for his community on the other. Of course, it’s Mary’s side that eventually wins out, but for a large majority of the film, George is not rewarded for doing the right thing. He’s punished. When young George rescues his brother from a freezing lake, he loses the hearing in his left ear. When he warns his boss about a potentially disastrous accident he gets beaten. When his father dies and he takes on his responsibilities at the Building & Loan, he loses his chance for travel and college. When there’s a run on the bank, he misses his own honeymoon. Every noble sacrifice for Bedford Falls makes Bedford Falls feel more like a trap. And instead of bringing him closer to the community he’s helping, Capra shows him isolated from it. In this shot, after realizing that his dreams of travel are finally squashed for good, George stands isolated against a train that he’ll never get on before he walks slowly back into the crowd, putting a smile on again, like he always does. Despite this parade of personal wounds, George is able to remain resilient until the very end, when his scatterbrained uncle misplaces $8,000 and puts him in danger of going to jail for fraud. Things get worse and worse and George, believing himself worth more dead than alive, contemplates suicide. It’s at this point that his guardian angel Clarence intervenes. Clarence Oddbody, angle second class, shows George what Bedford Falls would have been like had he never existed. What George sees is a nightmare. Bedford Falls is now Pottersville and all the dreams he had of an exciting life of adventure and exoticism have returned as perverted versions of themselves on the main drag of his former home. The moon that George promised to lasso for Mary, that she had made into a lovely needlepoint picture is made ugly and sleazy in the form of the Blue Moon Cafe. Martini’s Bar, a place where any break from decent behavior was not tolerated has become a garish speakeasy where anything goes. Everything is turned into an opportunity for crass commercialism. Even George’s home has become a boarding house. And when George finally gets his old life back, he’s rewarded with generosity from the community who bail him out in an unbelievably touching finale that ends with everyone, including the cops who came to arrest him singing Auld Land Syne. “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang- ” It’s easy to get carried away in this wave of feeling. But it’s important to remember what hasn’t changed. And that’s basically everything. George Bailey still has to live in his drafty, old house, scraping by to support his family, his business, despite being bailed out by the town, remains at the brink of being swallowed by Potter’s relentless expansion. Indeed, Potter faces no consequences at all, despite being the main protagonist, depsite stealing money from George Bailey, he’s not vanquished. He’s up $8,000. In some sense, Capra reconciles the contradictions I mentioned before. Success is not mutually exclusive to an ordinary life. Adventure can be found in a domestic setting. And yet, the most basic contradiction, that between the individual and the community, is left open ended. America has struggled with this contradiction since before its founding. How does a culture predicated on individualism maintain public virtue? How does an economic system that incentivizes individual success keep from exploiting communities? If you have the answer, tell us, because we’re still, at the eve of 2016, struggling to figure it out. I feel George’s dilemma, as I’m sure many of you do. The world shines with the promise of adventure and possibility, all that could be gained, experienced, learned, if only you were to commit yourself to a radical individualism. And yet the responsibilities of family and of the community nag; They call us back, they ask us, sacrifice. In solution to this, everyone finds their own balance, but you should keep in mind that it’s these personal dilemmas played out in society at large that ultimately draw the fault lines in our politics. In Frank Capra and George Bailey’s time, following World War II, the idea of an American destiny, of the American way still had weight and consensus. A string of disasters have weakened our resolve in such a thing, have fractured our ability to imagine a consensus and into the void rushes the heirs to Henry Potter. This is why the message of It’s a Wonderful Life, a message of hope and perspective is not so shallow as it seems. The contradictions in the film are never quite resolved, something beautifully dramatized by the finial on George’s stairs. There will always be an incompleteness to life, but hope is not naive. It’s hardiness and resolve against a situation that cannot give us assurances or guarantees. The film shows us that a change of heart and perspective, far from being powerless nostalgia in the face of an unusually divisive and fear filled season can be a genuinely revolutionary attitude. Hey everybody, thanks for watching and happy holidays, whatever you celebrate out there. If you want to help me make more of these Nerdwriter videos, if you like what I’m doing here and you want to see more, I ask you to pledge a little bit of money to my Patreon page. Everything helps. You guys have been so generous so far and, you know, all the money that you pledge goes directly into improving this channel. You know, these take a lot of time and essentially money to make, so everything you do is much, much, much, much, much appreciated. This is one of my favorite movies of all time. Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor of all time. Someone once said that George Bailey was like a vessel that Jimmy Stewart poured every nuance of his being into and I totally agree with that. I love this movie, I’ll never get tired of it. I watch it every year. Thank you again for watching and I will see you guys next Wednesday.

  1. Great video on a great channel. Thank you, Nerdwriter. But if George Bailey's ambitions are stalled by his inability, on key occasions, to pursue the way of self-serving cunning and ruthlessness, this makes him, to me, yes, lovable and trustworthy, but equally a helpless and scary man. His noble failures fill him up with lots of uncontrollable, regular guy, violent frustration, captured so well in Stewart's performance (and exploited so easily in every election cycle). His ravings reek of the puritan's righteous self-pity. George's sourness is an unmistakable part of a personality that would present itself as doggedly honest and loyal. My question is how much responsibility he takes (or can take) for the life which is, over the course of the movie, described to him by an angel as wonderful.

    Consider George's fictional contemporary, Tom Wingfield, of The Glass Menagerie. Tom looks at his situation, sees it will kill his dreams, chooses himself, and abandons an impoverished mother and disabled sister who rely on his support. While my first instinct is to condemn Tom and vindicate George, I also see that Capra's screenplay must rely on wild contrivances, or miracles, to save George's life, respectability and sinlessness. George is just a floundering animal, and without God's intervention, dead. All of these amazing ironies which prevent George from fulfilling his dreams, these may as well be the work of God too. George lacks freedom of action; he only possesses freedom of perspective, which itself is constantly persuaded by very unlikely happenings and visitors. You would say that George is like Job; except for this–Job is never persuaded, even by God, to be grateful. George is.

    Tennessee Williams' approach is more natural, and Tom a more impressive and likely character–he makes a selfish choice and consciously assumes the painful guilt entailed. We may hate him, but he will be too honest to resent our hatred. I relish Capra's film. It's a beautiful, weird artifact of the 1940's. But, I also see it teaches a self-exculpating notion of special providence–a notion that unnecessarily complicates the already difficult choices we make between ourselves and others.

  2. In the original version of the film, Kapra had George beating his scattered brained uncle and dragging him in to the police station. George receives a hefty sum as reward for turning in his uncle Billy, who it turned out the police had already been looking for under the pseudonym he had used in Alabama "dirty Billy bastard" for fraud and domestic violence charges. Although it was revealed after investigation that uncle Billy was NOT the criminal known as Billy bastard, uncle Billy had died in prison by that time. Under pressure from sane people around him, kapra rewrote the script to it's now beloved classic version.

  3. Damn.
    The movie makes me choke up.

    Now this video.
    Your idealism about philosophy is great. I enjoyed how you dissected it with a cold eye but still left the message that hope is in how we all perceive it. Thanks

  4. This video (and this movie) is absolutely beautiful. I'd say that something definitely has changed at the end of the movie, and that's George. He sees that all the good he's done and sacrifices he's made HAVE paid off, through the relationships he's built with the people of his community.

  5. About your speculation of the status quo being maintained after the end, I have to say I disagree. George Bailey was made "the richest man in Bedford Falls" because of those gifts, and I'd like to think he at least took his family for a vacation or something afterwards, maybe his brother volunteered to run it in his absence. All subjective of course, but my point is George WAS rewarded in the end,  both with his new lease on life and the opportunities, domestic or abroad, the money gave him and his family. Plus if you believe that SNL skit they beat the shit out Potter afterwards, so there's that.

  6. My family has been watching It's a Wonderful Life every year since I was born, and even before that. It's one of my favorite films, and never disappoints me. Thank you for this video.

  7. Hallmark commercialism, that's it exactly, thank you. I've been annoyed by that but I wasn't sure what to pin it on.

  8. Not to make this a political thing, but Obama should have been in there with those other politicians. He's a snake with many heads.

  9. Watched most if not all of your videos – whilst all good, this one is truly beautiful. So many people should watch this and try to understand.

  10. You missed this one by 90%.  Although I've been a practicing atheist most of my life, I was raised Roman Catholic and recognize an allegory when I see one.  George Bailey is a saint.  Being a saint entitled him to the "revelation" that his entire life has been in the service of God and that his Good Works are recognized.  George's early attempts to leave Bedford Falls are metaphorical references to missionary pilgrimages.  Education meaning pilgrimage and travel meaning missionary work.  IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is not about contradictions in American values; it is about grasping to Christian values in a secular America.

  11. Wow, this was so excellently done. I did not expect the reflection on the modern political and cultural climate near the end. Weaved in beautifully sir…

  12. Its a bit weird that Its a wonderful life is a big part of american culture, when the movie is so anti-capitalist and the american society is the oppesite.

  13. When I once saw it's a wonderful life particularly the scene where people prayed for George Bailey

    I cried so hard


    Because I never had friends who would do something like that

    I still don't

    I never had a friend that would help me in such a time of crisis or at least pray for me

  14. I almost shed a tear with this video…. It's A Wonderful Life is such a treasure in my life and I always find myself crying no matter how many times I watch it.

  15. +nerdwriter You asked, how a sociality focused on individualism can protect the community (in a sense)
    1. I like the work you do.
    2. Short answer: democratic schools. Longer answer: You live in a society, where every person decides, how the society works. But the first 20 years of their lives they learn how to live in a setting, where someone else makes the decisions. At least all the vague decisions, so the important once. Like, what happens, when I listen to these people, or those. How to know, whom to listen to. Can anybody really help me? How much can I relay on others' opinion? And many more things sosiety, community needs their decision makers to master, so it can function. Democratic education is different; children take responsibility for their actions. Every action. They can choose to do or not to do. They can see, what happens, when they choose.
    Until this descrepancy exists, the system will not work.

  16. To me, each vote for Donal Trump was a vote for Pottersville and
    everything it stands for, of greed, self-interest, cutthroat competition
    and I, me, mine value system of exclusion and elitist, arrogant rich
    who use the working class, middle class and poor to manipulate, but
    actually disdain them all.

  17. Wonderful piece. Not perfect, though, since you've mistaken Trump as an heir to Potter. It's seems literally obvious, but it's not. A better parallel would be Mr. Soros.

  18. Wow. I'm currently in rehearsals for a stage adaptation, and I stumbled upon your analysis of the film while doing some research. What really stood out to me was when you said, "There will always be an incompleteness to life. But hope is not naive. It's hardiness and resolve against a situation that cannot give us assurances or guarantees." Mary is the embodiment of hope and tenacity against all odds. I can't wait to carry some of your thoughts on the piece into my next rehearsal. Thank you, thank you.

  19. Another truly brilliant analysis of a truly brilliant film. Love to see you contrast it with White Christmas, which is a thorough trainwreck.

  20. Just recently discovered your channel and usually find your content very insightful, but Im afraid i must disagree with you on a core matter on this one. I could argue on how modern society predicates a false sense of individualism but actually demands you to fall in line with the general mass, but that is a discussion of philosophical matter – that might be best suited for one of your future videos? (If you have not done that already). However, a more practical argument is that capitalism does not in fact incentivize individualism and therefore poses no contradiction as to it exploiting communities. Practical capitalism has always placed the wellbeing of the masses over those of the individual, favoring large homogeneous groups that operate flawlessly over the little guy. For every story of an individual, of the little guy, overcoming difficulties, sticking it up to the boss, beating the system at its own game, overcoming the large machine that capitalism is there are perhaps millions of failures, of humans that resign their individuality and fall in line with modern society to gain benefit from it. Its part of why communism is so popular these days in poor countries and regions and why communists often refer to capitalism as a monster that preys on the little guy favoring only the rich and powerful. Its easy to predicate such a thing and convince the masses, specially if they are poorly educated, that capitalism is "big bad thing that ruins you". But I digress, anyways, far better people – and smarter – than me have written on the link between capitalism and loss of individualism in modern society, but as I stated at the start of this comment, there is actually no contradiction in the questions you pose, and I say this with no intention of disrespecting what is another wonderful video of yours.

  21. Hey man love your work. Do you happen to know the version of Auld Lang Syne playing at the very end of this video? I’d love to know it sounds beautiful. Thanks. Great video as usual.

  22. George Soros has modelled his entire life on Potter. This movie is not about individualism vs community, its about true capitalism vs corporatism, aka crony capitalism. George is a capitalist, so is his brother – they benefit and build up the community, Potter is a parasite on humanity because he uses his wealth and power to crush all competition. Kind of like the countless globalist megacorps who make massive donations to the Democrat Party and Clinton. Potter, like the progressives, can kid himself he is making a better future for all – when in fact all we see is soleless individualism, greed and power.

  23. This case study along with “It’s a Wonderful Life” gives me this great sense of optimism and hope that missing the rest of the year. I need that feeling all year long.

  24. This movie save my life. And it's shame this wonderful movie flop that day.
    That's the reason now days nobody makes feel good movies. All of them makes superhero or star Wars

  25. This movie is one of the best ever. That ending overwhelms even just thinking about it. As for this video, it's brilliant. One of the best channels on YouTube I have come across.

  26. Thank you for making this video the effort and care put into making them shines so strongly I think it would be next to impossible for anyone not to recognize and appreciate it

  27. While I love your videos, I must correct you. At the end, after he gets all the money from the people in town, his friend Sam gives him $25,000 and they explicitly state that George is now the richest man in town.

  28. While I am not much a fan of this classic, is funny many called it "communist propaganda". Yet Frank Capra & James Stewart more anti commies they couldn't be. Ironic, isn't it?
    PS: George Bailey should had fired his uncle for losing the money in the bank. And Mr Potter arrested for keeping it.

  29. These videos remind me of back in high school when we had to write analysis essays on books and movies. I never quite understood the point of those essays until watching these videos. These are all so masterfully written that they make the genre look fresh and fucking awesome. You must have ACED those classes.

  30. Dilemma of individual versus community is misguided. There is no individual without collective/community. There is no way for individual to realize himself/herself without collective, to be aware of himself/herself as individual. It's individual/collective. There cannot be versus here because it would be absurd and impossible. Even American radical individual can only exist within collective.

  31. You hit home on this video. Everything you said rings true.
    Finding the balance between the individual and the community…what's good for oneself vs. what's good for the whole…is what the movie is based upon.

    I would point out though that the battle for Bedford Falls was waged with affordable housing. George's big speech to the board was the single most direct attack on the concept of 'Rent' ever devised. Peter Bailey died trying to supply the town of Bedford Falls with the proper infrastructure of 'community'. George knew this and carried on his father's altruistic business in order to preserve the community and save his friends and family from a wretched life in Pottersville.

  32. Do you have anymore holiday movie analysis? Christmas Vacation? 4 Christmases? Charlie Brown's? The Grinch? White Christmas? The difference between stories told "then" & "now"?

  33. The ending of this movie makes me cry every Christmas when I watch it & I hope that never changes. And I also think James Stewart is one of the greatest actors to grace the silver screen. <3

  34. This movie makes me think about my life and how it might be different if I wasn't born or if I committed suicide, no matter what you may thinks, you do make a difference In someone's life

  35. I've always hated that film because I always sympathized with George called being called to self-sacrifice to make up for the honest mistakes of his neighbors. I always wanted George to go out and be as successful as he could outside of Bedford falls. It's especially painful to watch him save the town because folk understand that they cannot ask him to do the things that he does even though they wait expectantly for someone to do something about their problems. Great job on this video essay.

  36. You Sir, and the entire Nerdwriter team, are awesome. This too, is one of my favorite films, and you've given us a Wonderful look into it's world. A thousand Thank You's!!!

  37. George's house didn't become a boarding house. It was a boarding house. On the night of Harry's graduation as George sits down to eat he says "OH boy oh boy oh boy my last night in the old Bailey boarding house"

  38. Wow I'm speechless ! What a beautiful video that moved me to tears . Watching the movie as a kid u cant at all relate to George bailey, bc u have ur life and dreams ahead of you. U want to scream at him to not give up his money for harry to go to college. Harry does what he wants and finds great rewards . He doesnt keep his promise to let George lead his life of adventure he chooses to take a job from his fiance's dad. U want to scream at George to take sam wainwright's offer to put in money to get on on the plastic business that earns sam a fortune based on George's idea to make plastic from soy beans . He gets the town beauty but he still could have gotten her and went in with Sam and became rich. I guess he felt he couldn't go off in Sam's business venture without the now albatross of the building and loans. Again u finally feel happy that George at least is in love and going on his honeymoon but scream again no when George gives up his honeymoon to save the building and loan. He had one last chance to join potter get paid very good money take his wife on trips every year and he doesnt do it bc he knows it's a deal with the devil.
    As an adult if u found love and happiness and have children u are thankful for the moments that do payout but it's a lot more mundane moments to appreciate the good ones. U can feel George's regret like we all have , even though as a kid u told urself u have so much ahead of u. We all cant be a hero like harry became but in the end George has a family friends and is a small town hero that everyone admires . George bailey really represents most of us . Somehow he is punished like u brilliantly brought up for good deeds and harry who is not as smart and motivated as George Reeps the benefits of Georges sacrifices and lives his life for himself . I'd like in a way a study of harry bailey to see who he represents

  39. Once on a Yahoo review of God's is Not Dead, A few Atheists had a great conversation over the Religious Right being too heavy-handed in their themes with their movies. Yet film that was shot more in a centrist style not promoting any ideas just showing some consequences did a much better job than God's Not Dead. I remember I brought up Juno Red Dawn and It's a Wonderful Life. It's Wonderful Life while almost 100 years old still was able to catch the essence of a Pro-Family American lifestyle. I even mentioned that I have seen overseas feeling the same way with my in-laws had who were seeing it for the first time themselves. Then someone gave me a great response, saying that the film was even much deeper than I even give it credit for. He said it was a film that helps understand a certain scientific idea that was almost unheard of before and was never at the time covered on film. The Idea being Alternate Universe/Reality and the Quantum States. The film bordered on Sci-Fi. Had they removed the Angel and had an artifact or idea shift George's reality it could have kept the same pathos and made it Sci-Fi. I was Stunned at how what he sad made perfect sense and I never saw that.

  40. I am not a fan of this movie. It is one of the most depressing films I've ever seen. Its message: Swallow your dreams. What everyone else wants is always more important than what you want. Conform! Conform! Conform!

    Just home from the war, Jimmy Stewart was suffering from PTSD. He was an emotional wreck when he made this movie, barely able to function on the set. The raw emotion you see him display was not acting. It's a great performance, but it's difficult to watch when you realize the pain he was showing was very real.

  41. I really like the Like Stories of Old video on this film. It's basically more of the same, unsurprisingly, but it brings a couple of new thoughts to the table to complement yours.

  42. OMG…I have become George Bailey, minus the suicidal tendencies. Instead of flight I chose to pick a fight…how it ends…? Potter spins a propaganda campaign full of false promises to any willing to fight his fights for him, and fun prizes and toys to boot.
    No Mary. No kids…but a life of challenge and adventure…and I still did all those important tasks with all good faith, and in the end even those who benefitted from my goodness felt they had stole my assistance fair and square now hold still so I can get might sights locked in.
    …meanwhile your arms appear to be getting cumbersome to your world…mr p.


  43. Excellent analysis.
    I recall there eas a time I did a passable impression of Jimmy Stewart, I may just have to dust it off someday, who knows. Thanks!!

  44. Hey buddy! GREAT DOCUMENTARY!!!

    George Bailey is a guy who gets punished for doing good deeds. Save his brother's life… deaf in one ear. Stops Mr. Gower from killing a patient…gets beaten in the face. George just can't get a break!

    Life is hard. But we can all relate to George Bailey.

  45. The answer is the diverse community collective acting in their full adult powers for the good and appreciating pluralistic talent.

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