George Bailey, low-income housing developer AP

What the 1946 Christmas movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ says about small-town America in 2016.

The best scene from the 1946 Frank Capra flick It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t the final one, the famous part where everybody sings “Auld Lang Syne” in George Bailey’s living room. It’s the one before it, that long tracking shot that follows George as he bounds exuberantly through the long main street of Bedford Falls, the idyllic little town he’d once vowed to flee.

In case you have somehow avoided this glorious holiday hambone of seasonal redemption, go find a TV and watch it right now. But here’s the précis: George Bailey, in the person of Jimmy Stewart at his most likable, reluctantly abandons his youthful dreams of adventure and escape and shoulders the burden of shepherding his father’s building-and-loan business through the Depression and World War II. Marriage, family, and middle age arrive. One Christmas Eve, villainous banker Mr. Potter connives to entrap his younger rival in a financial disaster; binge drinking, impaired driving, and suicidal ideation follow. Then dopey guardian angel Clarence intercedes to offer George a glimpse at what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.

On release, the movie was received with modest box office and mixed reviews. (New York Times critic Bosley Crowther found it “a little too sticky.”) It owes at least some of its reputation to the timing of its rediscovery: In 1974, the film’s copyright protection lapsed, and local TV stations pounced on the royalty-free holiday fodder. When mid-1970s viewers rediscovered Bedford Falls and its denizens, a holiday classic was born.

Like many a myth, Wonderful Life lives on by rewarding multiple interpretations. In the greed-is-good 1980s, the film functioned as a rebuke to rapacious Reagan-era capitalism; earlier Me Decade audiences might have related better to the tragedy of George’s thwarted ambitions. In today’s Divided America, there’s something here for everyone. Conservatives can enjoy the small-town values and vigorously interventionist deity, while progressives cheer George’s lending policy toward low-income immigrant residents. But for those Americans living in places that look less and less like Bedford Falls, it’s hard not to see the movie as something else entirely—a fable of American anxieties about urbanism and community.

Before romping down Main Street, George has a noirish brush with “Pottersville,” the sin city of disreputable-looking jitterbug emporia and live burlesque shows that would have come to pass without his steadying presence. Restored to his proper reality, George delights in seeing Bedford Falls’ familiar landmarks rendered decent again: There’s the one-screen Bijou movie house, there’s the Bailey Building & Loan at which George squandered his youthful dreams. “Merry Christmas!” George shrieks, a man back in love with his crummy little hometown, and all it represents.

Capra spared no expense creating Bedford Falls for the film. At the time, the four-acre, three-block-long set he built in Encino, California, was one of the biggest ever built. Full-grown oak trees were planted along the street, to give the place a properly rooted sense of authenticity. The special-effects people concocted a realistic-looking detergent-based chemical snow to simulate wintertime in upstate New York, which is where the fictional town was supposed to be located. Bedford Falls is, in many ways, the enduring star of the film, which is why its trippy transformation to tacky Pottersville drives George to pray for the return of his boring old life, and the small town that defined it.

This makes sense: He is, after all, a developer, and Wonderful Life is a paean not only to the small-town virtues of family and community but to actual small towns, or at least their design principles. With its compact, walkable downtown and abundance of well-kept porchfront homes, Bedford Falls is a showcase of enlightened mixed-use planning, the kind of city Jane Jacobs would have asked Santa for. When ‘70s audiences rediscovered the film from the sunken living rooms of their subdivision ranchers, they must have seen a lost American paradise, a vanished world of robust community bonds and neighbors who looked out for each other. And George’s conversion narrative is rooted in what we’re now calling the politics of nostalgia—he turns his back on the future, choosing instead to cower in the cozy confines of the past.  

There are some rich ironies in this. George is—or was—a frustrated architect; he dreams of designing bold new cities and building “skyscrapers a hundred stories high.” Instead, he settles for creating Bailey Park, a low-income housing development of cookie-cutter homes carved from the outlying woods. In other words, sprawl-happy George may get few people out of Potter’s slums, but he also unwittingly helped plant the seeds of the town’s demise. Even in 1945, Bedford Falls is apparently shedding manufacturing jobs—George mentions that half the town is out of work since the old tool-and-die factory closed. If Bedford Falls’ demographic patterns followed the norm for small metros in the industrial Northeast, in all likelihood, downtown’s bustling sidewalks and thriving shopfronts would soon empty, barring further angelic meddling.

Several modern critics have addressed these issues. Gary Kamiya, in a timeless Salon takedown from 2001, argued that Pottersville is more George’s kind of place anyway—at least, the adventure-minded young George. With its hoppin’ nightspots and permissive live-music ordinances, it’s infinitely more interesting than suffocating Bedford Falls, where nosy neighbors lurk on every porch. Wendell Jamieson, in the New York Times, sounded a similar theme in 2008, calling the film “a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people.” He called an urban policy professor at NYU to confirm that the town (in its Bizarro guise as casino-friendly Pottersville) would probably be in better shape economically had George never existed, thanks to the gambling revenue. An even odder twist is discussed by the political scientist Patrick Deneen in his 2012 essay: During George’s alternate-reality sojourn, we learn that suburban Bailey Park was literally built on top of the town cemetery, just like in Poltergeist.

For a heartwarming holiday favorite, Wonderful Life is full of these horrors. Bedford Falls is haunted, like the best Christmas stories, by the spirits of what used to be and what is yet to come. It’s easier to see that in 2016 compared to 1946, since we know more about what will happen to this town than the hero does. George won’t be able to make Bedford Falls great again. “In the real world, Potter won,” as Kamiya wrote. “We all live in Pottersville now.”

The village of Seneca Falls, New York, is said to be the model for Bedford Falls. If you go there today, you can see the ghosts of Capra’s Encino simulacrum: There’s the steel truss bridge from which George threatens to jump; there are the grand Second Empire homes, dead ringers for the Bailey clan’s drafty rehab. But any number of nearby upstate settlements, from Elmira to Waterloo, could stand in just as well. This is the forgotten country of Richard Russo novels, the hollowed-out manufacturing burgs now visited by reporters asking residents what they heard in the voice of the man they helped make president. The Bijou has been dark for a long time.

Peter Bailey, George’s saintly dad, seems to see all this coming, even as he battles to keep the Potters of the world at bay. On the evening before he succumbs to his fatal stroke, the elder Bailey makes a half-hearted attempt to keep his older son in Bedford Falls instead of letting him go to college. But George isn’t buying it. “I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office,” he complains. “I just feel like if I don’t get away, I’d bust.”

The thing is, George is right—and indeed, he will bust. Even his dad has to agree. “You get yourself an education,” he finally says, echoing the advice of generations of parents who hope to pass a more wonderful life on to their kids. “Then get out of here.”

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the December 2009 issue of Urbanite magazine.

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