It strikes me that it is only a matter of time before the current financial crisis produces crusading screenplays attacking the Madoff-like malefactors of great wealth in our midst. The nonfiction filmmakers like Michael Moore have already joined in the fray. Still, in this lull before the cinematic storm, I was bemused by two recent journalistic pieces, one by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, and the other by Wendell Jamieson in the Arts section of The New York Times of Dec. 18, 2008. Both pieces focus on Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), though only Mr. Gopnik’s article is explicitly linked to the current trouble, what with James Stewart’s George Bailey trying to placate depositors at his bank making a run to get their money back before it is gone forever. George had always lent money to people needing to buy their own homes. Lionel Barrymore’s evil Mr. Potter refused to let people get out of their slum dwellings by giving them generous rates of interest.
I should point out that It’s a Wonderful Life was not as well received by the critics in the last weeks of December 1946 as William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, hailed by many as one of the greatest films ever made. In Best Years, Fredric March plays a returning war veteran who happens to be a banker. In one scene, the March character gets into trouble with his boss by giving another veteran, a farmer, a loan without collateral from the recipient.
Some conservative columnists and newscasters have argued that the economic crisis was caused at least partly by too many bad loans for mortgages encouraged by soft-headed liberals anxious to spread homeownership among more American working-class families. By this argument, Barrymore’s Mr. Potter was more right and more prudent than Stewart’s George Bailey. And March’s returning veteran banker was more dangerously indulgent to the “little people” than his more hard-headed boss, played by Ray Collins.
It’s a Wonderful Life opened in New York more than 62 years ago, and it is still timely enough to engage two gifted writers in its resurrection. I wonder how many of today’s movies will stand the test of time as remarkably well.