The Christian Socialism of It’s a Wonderful Life


“There are just two things that are important,” director Frank Capra told the LA Times in a 1946 article about his film It’s a Wonderful Life. “One is to strengthen the individual’s belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend toward atheism.”

Initially, it seemed that Capra failed to meet his goals. It’s a Wonderful Life made back only half of its production costs, received mixed reviews from critics, and caught the attention not of the Academy Awards voters but of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who investigated its anti-capitalist message. 

That original reception seems backwards to us today. Every Christmas, viewers watch It’s a Wonderful Life for the sake of both the important things Capra identified. The story of forlorn banker George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), dissuaded from suicide when an angel shows him an alternate reality in which he’d never been born, has become a feel-good film about the divinely sanctioned American Dream and a lesson in gratitude. 

But between its title and its joyful final few minutes, one finds a very different movie. For most of the film, George is a bitter loser, beaten at every turn by real estate baron Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), forced to run the family Building & Loan bank while his brother sees the world, and stuck in his hometown of Bedford Falls with his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and their four children. By the time the angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) unveils a world without George Bailey, we fully understand his desire to die. 

Every couple of years, a new viewer notices these plot points and gains a new appreciation for the movie’s nuanced take on joy and suffering (case in point). But the bleak narrative isn’t the only way Capra’s film differs from its cheery reputation. No matter what the director originally intended, Capra ended up creating a movie that pits the economics of heaven against the economics of savage capitalism, a world where individual identity cannot be extricated from the collective and in which God blesses the dignity of workers and stands against the rich and the proud.


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