I’m back over at Overthinking It, this time in both podcast and blog form.
First, I’m on the Podcast this week, talking about the Hobbit (which I haven’t seen) and Life of Pi (which I have). It’s the usual mix of jokes and attempts at analysis, so if you haven’t listened to me on the POdcast before, give it a shot.
Second, I’m Overthinking two of my favorite Christmas movies, It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street:
Shortly after the close of World War II, two Christmas classics were released just six months apart. It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 1946) and Miracle on 34th Street(May 1947) have both found a place as feel-good Christmas classics, still shown 60 years later to children that grew up on them. Likely because of their close proximity to the good feelings of VJ day and the return of so many soldiers, both are firmly placed as Christmas staples. In addition to their close release and Christmas theme, the two share certain plot elements as well. Both films take place firmly in the world of business and commerce, with the Baily Brother’s Building and Loan and Macy’s Department Store supplying the bulk of the setting. Both stories share a central conflict of a decent man facing wrongful imprisonment and a triumphant ending that rights the wrong.
Because of the centrality of capitalism and justice to the plot, both films have a lot to say about the American dream and the values of democracy and capitalism. While both Miracle and Wonderful Life tell an ultimately uplifting tale, the two films have diametrically opposite statements about the relationship between moral people and moralinstitutions.
It’s a Wonderful Life is deeply cynical about the institutions that dominate American life. Capitalism gets it the worst – the defining characteristic of the villainous Potter is that he’s a banker. He is greedy and horrible, the embodiment of everything that wrong with a capitalist society. He is practically cartoonish in his villainy, with a skull on his desk, an evil cackle and a mute body-servant.
But Potter isn’t the only enemy – capitalism itself does its level best to destroy George Bailey. We’re shown repeatedly that George is the best and brightest of his generation, but the dire economic circumstances of his family and his town prevent him from doing anything more than getting by. Capitalism is supposedly a meritocracy, but George’s life is dominated by harsh economic reality.
From a philosophical standpoint, capitalism isgenerally justified by the argument that we’re all better off if everyone acts in his or her own rational self-interest. Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, we’re told again and again, is the antithesis of this idea – George runs the S&L not to make a profit but for the benefit of the town. We’re shown quite explicitly that his selflessness is literally the only thing standing between the town of Bedford Falls and ruin.
Government is treated little better. While the government employees of Bedford Falls are not really against George Bailey, the government itself is utterly beholden to the moneyed interest. Despite being George’s friend, the prosecutor is (mostly) powerless against the need to arrest George if he can’t come up with the missing money. The bank inspector is a family man but is still portrayed as the worst sort of bureaucrat, completely captured by a system that demands obedience. In the world of Wonderful Life government is, at best, not actively out to destroy the little guy, but largely powerless to help.