I hadn't seen this charming holiday chestnut until a few years back. My in-laws took my wife and I to see it at a quaint little theatre in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, near where they live. For those who don't know Colonial Williamsburg, it's an historic recreation of one of Colonial America's earliest settlements. Everyone dresses in authentic clothes and talks and acts like they're from the 1600's. It's basically like this episode of South Park.
Of course, I already knew the film's general plot: Man (Jimmy Stewart) feels like a failure and thinks about killing himself until ghost shows him how different things would be without him around. One of the things I liked about the film is that the protagonist's impact isn't overstated. It's not like Back to the Future II where Marty's dad is dead and billionaire Biff is married to his mom. Instead, it sends a much more subtle and attainable message. A simple life full of good intentions and good deeds is a life well-lived, and others will be affected positively by such lives.
That's the moral of the story that most people take from this movie, and it's a valuable (and true, I hope) one. However, there's another significant theme at play here, one that most people (including my staunchly Republican in-laws) either miss or refuse to see.
This film is virulently anti-capitalist.
The villain is a scowly old due named Potter who looks like Dick Cheney with glasses. He's a slumlord and bank owner. He's constantly trying to screw over the middle class people of the town and take advantage of his wealth. He's big business, capitalism without a conscience, and Jimmy Stewart represents the mom-and-pop industry that's in danger of being taken over.
Check out this scene, where there's a bank panic, and Potter offers "50 cents on the dollar" to the town's denizens. Stewart pleads with them to keep their money in the community bank:
Sounds downright socialist, doesn't it?
Still don't believe that one of America's most beloved movies criticizes one of the country's most cherished tenets? Well, the F.B.I. sure thought it did. They declared it "communist propaganda" in an official memo.
It didn't slip by everyone. Check out the comments on imdb from a user in Dallas. Although I don't agree with him politically, he's dead on about the film's themes:
The movie appeals to the socialist nature of one's sense of life, and was an anti-capitalist propaganda film on the virtue of altruism. For instance, people who wanted their money at the beginning of the "run" on the savings and loan were negatively painted selfish. Old Man Potter was painted as the evil banker, when in fact a much more interesting and accurate spin would be to look at the lives positively affected because Potter managed his bank so well (he had the liquidity to handle his depositor's claims). Good ol' George, presented as the epitome of the virtuous man, possesses in fact an ethics of self sacrifice. Incompetent Uncle Billy, having "lost" the banks capital in a brown paper bag, is nevertheless sympathetically presented as Potter's victim, when in fact he is merely the price of George's immoral (and anti-capitalist) practice of sacrificial nepotism.
The fact that thousands of Americans probably purchased this movie at their local Walmart this holiday season is both amusingly and maddeningly ironic.
Nolanometer Final Grade: B