George Bailey & Kelo

While I was growing up, my parents often remarked on the role of a small town banker. His was a job that needed honesty & good judgment. In the depression, our local banker stuck it out, losing his own money. The piano lessons I took in their family parlor didn’t teach me much, but their tenacity did. In some areas, bankers were stingy about loaning money for irrigation – we were close to the Platte so wells didn’t need to be terribly deep (nor terribly expensive). Still, our village was relatively prosperous because those loans were forthcoming from later owners of that local bank. [In Texas] still later, in my copy shop, one of our best customers testified before the state board that new bank after bank would prosper. This was during the early eighties oil boom; he made his consulting money (and paid his printer). However, as the decade moved on, so did the landmen. Those banks, one by one, closed. Balance, good judgment, foresight – these aren’t all that easy.

My parents were not huge fans of that local banker: he was a bit too willing to chat about other’s finances and besides, my mother complained years later, he cheated on his quite pleasant wife with our neighbor, all couples in countless carpools and yellow haze weekends. Still, when I told her my first roommate in college, the daughter of a banker in another village, had described the poverty of the local farmers, my mother snapped that probably meant the bank wasn’t doing a good job. And I suspect it wasn’t. It condescended.

These memories were prompted by the quite wonderful exchange over at Albion’s Seedlings about “Little Boxes.” Jim Bennett beautifully summarized what seems ideologically bizarre – the movement by the left in that period.

“Little Boxes” was written after the collapse of the CPUSA’s last major popular campaign, and is a sort of snarky critique of the cause of its irrelevance. It also marks the Left’s shift from critiqueing the market economy for producing too little, to critiqueing it for producing too much — substituting an aesthetic critique for an economic one. This in turn was a symptom of the collapse of any trace of a working-class base for the hard Left, and its replacement by a bohemian-intellectual base.

This disdain for materialist abundance leads to such moments as when a leftist colleague described standing in Target and crying at the choice of shampoos. She’d spent a year abroad: the tears were not, of course, of joy. (The beauty products of Romania couldn’t have been all that aesthetic; their virtue was that they were meager.)

The dialogue that followed Bennett’s post reminded me of the Christmas favorite It’s a Wonderful Life. I hadn’t seen it all the way through for decades, but last year, watching it with my daughter, I was struck by how much it caught the post-war culture; how it was woven together by not just money, but an attitude towards ownership. It countered hoarding with pump priming. Bennett’s perceptive argument brings us to the fact the believers in one of the most materialist of theories began condemning those who believed in the open marketplace as being too materialistic. Sure, Ayn Rand gave them an opening, but I’ve never been quite sure how they expect us to judge their system; if a materialist system doesn’t successfully produce materialist products, what the hell good is it? If the free marketplace weren’t successful in a materialist way, we could say, well, at least we make our own choices; at least we have freedom. To give up autonomy for nothing seems like a poor bargain. So, to true believers, the material becomes, itself, bad. They might counter that in their society limitations were universal, but that was neither true nor very heartening. Well, its attraction may be to the meannest of our traits – that sometimes we are quite willing to do with less because others have to as well.

Lately, I happened on an essay, “Things Ain’t What they Seem: Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.” Here is Gilbert Sorrentino’s rather sour take:

Its true message is, in the context of Capra’s oeuvre, a surprising one: Money is everything. Although the film is usually read as the pinnacle of the Capraesque ideal of grassroots optimism, I would argue that its subtext calls this optimism into serious question. In effect, the film encapsulates a disgust and anger with modern American life that are barely hidden, and often glaringly foregrounded.

We expect such cynicism and simplification. But we recognize it ignores the thematic threads running throughout the movie. As we come to know George Bailey & his family, we realize Capra is arguing for a value best represented by home ownership. That is the difference between Bedford Falls, nurtured and encouraged by George’s family and its savings and loan, and the potential Pottersville. Under Potter’s thumb, families would not be developing an asset, not remodeling and decorating a home; rather, they would feel transient, ever his tenants. Despite the way Potter embodies the capitalist landlord, Pottersville is a good deal closer to the life that commentator after commentator on Albion’s Seedlings reminds us was lived in the Soviet satellites. Now those were really ticky-tack houses. Potter wants to own all – houses, transport, businesses. Certainly his ravenous desire reflects some quite statist goals of the forties. Capra counters this consolidation of money & power with the role of the Baileys in that community. They, it is true, offer mortages for the “little boxes” Pete Seeger describes, but these remain solid assets, unshaken in earthquakes. As other commentators remark, the houses sung of my Seeger sre now highly valued; these are real versions of the fictive Bedford Falls. And this is what is good – both spiritually and materially – about an ownership society. A room of our own, a home of our own gives us space & time to ourselves, to become ourselves. But also to gather with others. Owning our own houses – sure it is a matter of money, it builds an asset, but a family hearth is even more a matter of the heart.

Sorrentino implies money (like abundance, the material) is, in itself, evil. He concludes by arguing the last scene – where money comes back with generosity – “show[s] George what really matters, and the final scene, with cash everywhere, is a not-so-subtle allusion to Zasu Pitt’s blanket of gold coins in von Stroheim’s Greed.” But money, like words, is an expression, a medium of exchange. Writers as divergent as Franklin & Thoreau emphasize the importance of analyzing cost – determining what is worth our time, our “life” both would say. Neither disdains money. They disdain lack of perspective. Potter has a skewed perspective, but so, we suspect, does Sorrentino. Such complexities seem lost on Sorrentino. He believes the movie:

insists, again and again, on being read as a testament to honesty and simplicity, the essential goodness of the everyday man and his everyday family in an everyday town. It may, if its urgent subtext is denied, be read that way, but its darkness is everywhere, as is Capra’s distrust of “the people.” It is no surprise that postwar audiences (it was released in 1946) rejected it. They must have seen its phony optimism plain, and, after four years of war, were not having any. George’s problems and their snap solution must have seemed frivolous in the aftermath of the unimaginable bloodshed and destruction and death that was the Second World War.

People like Sorrentino seem to feel that if a shadow is cast the essence is compromised. But the movie is not just about “essential goodness” – it is about the temptations that all of us, most certainly George, are subject to. Of course, he feels the moment’s anger, despair, a restlessness at the restraints of life – imposed by his role in a community, as a son, father, husband. He is not always nice; he is, in short, a sentient being. Certainly, those years were duty-filled for my parents. Their lives were a good deal easier than their parents’ had been. But, they were quite aware there is no free lunch, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, they made their beds & needed to lie in them. These clichés, well, these truths, were always hovering around their take on life. And sometimes George feels they close down on him, imprison him; life just costs him too much of his self.

Those who came back from WWII knew full well that Bedford Falls is not easily achieved nor is it Utopia. And duty is a harness we accept only fitfully – we see George straining to throw it off throughout the movie. Sorrentino is right about that – but wrong, I think, about the essentials. Stewart, in that last scene, recognizes with an intensity that seems, indeed, manic, that his submersion of self has defined self, that renunciation has brought an abundant life, that what seemed weakness has been strength, and that he has not just brought happiness but also, really, been happy. He just didn’t always notice it—nor do we. And so, at Christmas, which is both a bustling time & a time for reflection, we stop for a moment, notice pleasures we take for granted. Like the simple one of looking around our own houses at our own families. Darkness – well, we know that too. The light wouldn’t be so welcome if we weren’t aware of the dark. Sorrentino’s cynicism arises from that sense that money taints us rather than is used by us and from a sense that if we see a shadow, that is the truth, not just, well, a shadow that comes with the light.

In a short but significant scene, we see the Baileys helping the Italian Martinis move into their new house, mortgaged through the bank. Mary, George’s wife, greets them with

Bread – that this house may never know hunger.

Salt – that life may always have flavor.

Wine – that joy and prosperity may reign forever.

That is the legacy of the Bailey savings and loan. As Mary has hinted to George from the beginning, that is a life you can hang your hat on.

But that is also what is wrong with Kelo.

5 thoughts on “George Bailey & Kelo”

  1. I’m vaguely familiar with the area. I’m from NW Missouri. Isn’t there a national cemetary at Ft. Kearny? I’ve been there.
    Do you know where Beatrice, south of Lincoln is? My dad crashed his plane there a year ago (he survived and is fine now – and still flying).
    I grew up in a different time, but there was a rash of bank closings in the late eighties. My friend’s grandfather ran one of them. Back in the day he would make a loan on a handshake (or so it was said to me), and there are plenty of successes who owed a lot to him. Unfortunately, there were many others who squandered what they got from him.

  2. Oil boom was in TX; where I’m from is about 125 miles W of Lincoln, pretty far from Missouri. Yes, small town bankers knew the people – Willa Cather describes an attractive young woman in My Antonia who, with her father, knew both immigrants and old timers; those were people that knew their small worlds.

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