Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

George Bailey is a Localist Hero

Heroes aren't perfect, but they always save their towns—and, most importantly, the people who live in them.

It is the glory of the old to be Right about Things, and the glory of the young to call them Wrong. Which is why, with all due respect to Patrick Deneen (whom, I should add, I can barely term “old”), I must insist he is wrong about It’s A Wonderful Life. 

Let me situate you in the context of a perennial discussion about the merits of Frank Capra’s favorite film, that old black and white Christmas movie your parents probably made you watch as a child. You know the story. George Bailey (the incomparable Jimmy Stewart), finds himself trapped in the small, mythical American town of Bedford Falls, despite repeated attempts to escape, via college or a job or the Second World War. Bedford Falls, hinted to be somewhere in picturesque New England, is caught between the monopolist designs of banker Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), and the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, owned by George’s father and uncle, which seems to be the only force capable of resisting Potter’s attempts to ingest every financial institution in town. After his father’s untimely death, when Mr. Potter proposes to dissolve the Building and Loan, George foregoes college, instead paying to send his younger brother Harry to school, and stays to preserve the institution and his home town.

Deneen’s argument has been that Bailey is not the hero we want him to be. He has “a dark side,” which is his modernist desire to see and change the world, and which he carries out in small by building Bailey Park, a suburban neighborhood for which the trees are razed and which is built in part on the site of the town’s cemetery. Or so Deneen extrapolates, from the scene in which George, shown the horrors of a parallel universe in which he was never born, stumbles upon the town graveyard when searching for his friends the Martinis’ home in Bailey Park. Bailey Park not only trampled the graveyard, Deneen says, but with it the town’s connection with its past, meaning George didn’t save Bedford Falls—he hurt it.

But it’s not clear that this cemetery, the crux of Deneen’s argument, was demolished for Bailey Park. We know that it is near Bailey Park; Mr. Potter’s rent collector mentions it when identifying the location where George is building “dozens of the prettiest little homes you ever saw.” Like many other scenes during the vision sequence of the movie, the graveyard represents a negative development that George was there to stop, like the druggist Mr. Gower’s descent into homelessness after serving a jail sentence for a mistake George wasn’t there to catch, or his wife, Mary Hatch, becoming an old maid. At least cinematically, the field of headstones emphasizes the lives that would have been lost if George had never been born: his brother Harry, whom he saved from drowning as a child; the thousands of men Harry couldn’t save in the war because George wasn’t there to save Harry; and, in an earlier version of the movie’s script, the very Martini family for whom George searches, who die in a house fire in one of Potter’s miserable slums, which they never manage to escape without the help of the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. The graveyard offers both a visceral experience of loss and a convenient segue from the search for the Martinis to Harry’s gravestone.

But even if George did raze a graveyard for Bailey Park, the movie would still be a good one, despite the genuine qualms of building on overturned graves. It presents the real political problems of small town life and shows George making prudential decisions, which are not the same as ideal ones. George’s primary consideration is always helping his friends and neighbors stay out of financial trouble. For a young generation fresh out of war and a depression prior to that, two things Jimmy Stewart lived through personally as well as on screen, the gift George Bailey gives his town in these homes is the promise of a future, imperfect as it may be, for a generation that had lost much of its past.

As George tells Potter in one impassioned moment:

What’d you say a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they—do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!

Not to mention, the parallel universe of what Bedford Falls becomes without the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan is the very nightmare of liberalism Deneen would rightly like to avoid. Named Pottersville for its main benefactor, business interests have been given full reign over the town which is littered with strip clubs, bars, and homes even more insular than those in Bailey Park. Violet Bick, a flirt who receives George’s sympathy in Bedford Falls, is seen in a nightlife street fight, having become a much worse woman by being allowed to indulge her rational self interest for the benefit of the town’s income. You’ve heard this story. You’ve lived this story. Men and women that are weak in a stronger society succumb to sinful nature far more easily under the all-encompassing seduction of profit uber alles. Capra’s movie saw prophetically the very errors of modern liberalism which are now so visible for Deneen and others to critique as nothing more and nothing less than that same old sinner, greed.

More importantly, however, George Bailey’s life is a story of second chances. Mr. Gower, the Martinis, Violet Bick, and George himself need forgiveness and grace countless times over, but you can’t have grace without being known personally. The benefit of Bedford Falls—the benefit of a small town—is that the men who live in it are known, and Capra shows this repeatedly. The threat of Mr. Potter is the threat of a man who neither knows nor cares to know. When George personally vouches for the character of a man to whom the Bailey Building and Loan lent a sum of money, Potter mocks:

You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money. What does that get us? A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class. And all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas.

This is the heart of localism that is lost in the very impersonal world that George himself longs to see, when he plans to “shake the dust of this crummy little town off his feet and see the world.” But as he is forced into the hero role by each new turn of events, against his own will and against his modernist desires, he learns what he may never have discovered had he left home. George discovers that his greatest impact, his greatest adventure, and his greatest joy are right there in Bedford Falls. It’s A Wonderful Life does more than just say “every man’s life has value, even if you only stay in your hometown”; it goes a step further and says “every man’s influence is greatest, and most valuable, in his hometown.” The best way to change the world is by doing exactly what George, and many of us, least want and most need to do.

The antidote to Potter’s impersonal profiteering is Clarence’s reminder to George, who, in his moment of crisis, despairs that he has failed his town and failed his family. After Uncle Billy mistakenly gives an $8,000 bank deposit to Mr. Potter, who secrets the funds and then accuses the Baileys of malfeasance and embezzlement, George lashes out at his kids, at his wife, at their drafty old house and their crummy little town—his life that is so short on glamour and so full of struggle. But notice, his despair is not predicated on a sense of purposelessness, as we might expect from a man who never got to pursue his dreams, but on having dropped a burden of great importance: the burden of keeping Bedford Falls from Potter’s waiting hands, and his family from the waiting hands of poverty. The heart of his strife is his failure, despite having given up everything for his town.

But the burden is not on him alone. The townspeople he gave everything to save in turn give everything to save George and make up the enormous sum. The beauty of localism is present in no greater line than Martini’s triumphant “I busted the juke-a-box!” to empty it for George.

“Dear George,” Clarence writes in the front cover of a book that appears in the chaos. “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”