Capra’s Tale of a Depressed Idealist: It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 2, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part 6 of: Hollywood & Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

From a worldview perspective, George is asking God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to directly intervene in his physicalist world.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

The depressed idealist at home: “You call this a happy home? Why do we have to have all these kids?”

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) provides a wonderful expression of the complicated interplay between the macro-worlviews of Physicalism and Idealism as life-interpreting stories in the life of its main character, George Bailey. At the outset of the film George is caught in the vice between these two warring worldviews. He is an idealist at heart, anxious for freedom from the physicalism of running the family business where his father is trapped “spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe.”  However, after his father’s untimely death, his own idealistic commitment to save the Bailey Building and Loan locks George into an ongoing struggle between these two powerful worldviews. Day after day he labors in the physicalist world of dollars and cents, while steadfastly maintaining his idealistic commitment to honesty, compassion, and justice.

George is a typical modern in that he simply cannot resolve the tension between physicalism and idealism. While the intuited ideals passed to him by his family’s worldview are strong enough to shape his own life, the dualistic skepticism imparted to him by his broader culture is dissolving his confidence that his ideals are actually making any difference in the physical world. Even a lifelong romance with his ever-ebullient wife Mary (Donna Reed) isn’t enough to stem George’s growing angst.

Physicalism at its worst

It is important to recognize how Capra sets up the conflict between George Bailey and the main opposing character, Mr. Potter: “the wealthiest man in town.” Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is the very incarnation of physicalism in its most devastating form—nihilism. To him, there is no meaning in his universe save his own will to dominate others through the power of his wealth.  Early in the film, George contrasts his father’s idealist view of human beings with Potter’s nihilistic perspective:

George: People were human beings to him, but to you, 
 a warped frustrated old man, they're cattle.
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To Potter, men like Peter and George Bailey and their “so called ideals” are simply poor businessmen unwilling to dominate those around them for self-gain. Their idealism is nothing but “sentimental hogwash!”

George the idealist is able to smell out and resist Potter’s financial temptations

Potter will stop at nothing to get his hands on the Building and Loan—coercion, intimidation, seduction.  Yet, nothing succeeds. As a “steadfast main character,” George holds onto his ideals despite of the growing physical proof that his ideals have failed him.

The film’s defining moment arrives when George’s business partner, Uncle Billy, loses a $8,000 bank deposit. (Actually, Potter steals it.) Crushed between the physicalist realities of “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.” George chooses the idealist value of self-sacrifice and takes the blame for the shortfall. Finally surrendering to Potter’s domination, George asks his wealthy enemy for a loan.  Seizing the moment, Potter not only refuses to help, he swears out a warrant for George’s arrest. But before he does, he trashes George’s entire life story in a devastating radical physicalist appraisal of the failure of George’s ideals:

Potter: You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. 
What are you but a warped, frustrated, young man? 
A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands 
and knees and begging for help. No securities––no stocks––
no bonds––nothing but a miserable little $500 
equity in a life insurance policy. [laughs] 
You're worth more dead than alive.
 .
George the depressed idealist pleads with Potter for his financial life.

With nowhere else to turn, George makes the ultimate Idealist leap and turns to the one person in Bedford Falls he hopes might be more powerful than Mr. Potter: God. For the first time we see that George’s ideals are rooted not just in his family’s story, but in the broader Christian story of a theistic worldview.  While he is “not a praying man,” George reaches out to the God whose story undergirds the ideals he lives by.

Idealism Breaking In

Don’t miss the courage of how Capra sets up the solution to George Bailey’s dilemma. From a worldview perspective, George is asking for the God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to intervene in the physicalist world.  He is not asking for strength and courage to live out his ideals through this dark hour (as noble and important as such a prayer might be), he is asking God to reach into the physical universe and change it. He is asking God to reach out of the circle of heaven and break into the box of the earth.

With nowhere else to turn, George prays for divine intervention

George’s prayer is the very essence of Biblical theism wherein idealism and physicalism are reconnected and redeemed. George is not asking for the subjective private truth of his ideals to prevail, he is asking for objective public proof that God is alive and active in the world. In the pre-dualistic language of Jesus, he is asking for a God to exert his rulership on the earth so that “his will is done on ( the physicalist) earth as it is in (idealist) heaven.”

What’s more, Capra has insured that the audience already knows what George doesn’t: God is listening! The movie opens, not only with George’s prayer, but also the countless prayers of his family and friends flooding heaven with petitions on his behalf. While the corny constellation graphics are a bit over the top and his human-turned-angel theology flawed, Capra makes certain that audience knows that the world he has constructed in his film is inhabited not merely by physical human beings, but God, and angels, and human souls.

It is NOT a merely a physicalist world. It is an idealist one as well. They are interconnected. When a despondent George drives to the bridge to end his own miserable failure of an idealistic life, the world of ideals breaks into the physical world in the person of one very star-crossed angel–Clarence.

Clarence: You've been given a great gift, George -- 
A chance to see what the world would be like without you.
 .
God’s inbreaking? Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class

Needless to say, the rest of the film is slow and certain vindication of George’s idealist worldview in the physicalist world of sense perception. One-by-one, Clarence reinterprets George’s idealistic decisions on an even deeper level than George ever imagined.  George was just trying to the “right” thing. As it turns out, he was also doing the “world-changing” thing. Not only is God willing to break into the physical world by his actions; George Bailey is changing the outcome of the physical universe in the direction of the will of God by his own idealistic actions.

Capra’s vision expresses the heart and soul of Christian theistic idealism: the possibility of the knowledge of God being manifest not only in the private realm of subjective knowledge, but also in the public world of sense perception. Jesus taught his disciple to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of God, because “through answered prayer Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world.” He not only proclaimed the reality of the unseen (idealist) kingdom of God, he demonstrated its reality in the (physicalist) world through supernatural answers to prayer. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

Divine “in-breaking” is a key element of  Capra’s film. Just as people could “know” that the kingdom of God was “breaking into” the kingdoms of this world through supernatural answers to prayer in Jesus’ ministry, George Bailey (and vicariously, Capra’s audience) “knows” (in Hebraic language, understands by experience) that God has broken into his world. Just as Jesus called for his followers to bet their lives on the “unseen” ideals of the kingdom on the basis of the “seen” supernatural interventions of God (John 14:11), so George Bailey reaffirms his commitment to his unseen ideals because of God’s physical intervention in his life. As Clarence concludes:

Clarence: You see George, you've really had a wonderful life. 
Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?
 .
George’s second prayer is the movie’s transforming moment

Capra’s moral premise is clear: despite strong physical evidence to the contrary, living in the light of idealism is “a wonderful life,” because those ideals are rooted in God himself. It is worth being an idealist even in a world dominated by physicalism, because as important as the physical world is, it is not all there is. They are interconnected in ways that George’s dualism (and skeptical hold upon his idealism) prevented him from ever imagining.  [1]

Next: It’s a Wonderful Life #3: The Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically

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Notes

[1] I am fairly confident that, like most artists, Capra intuited these worldview issues and expressed them in his art far beyond what he could have explained philosophically. For more insight into the concept of a “moral premise,” see, Stanley D. Williams, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006).