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How a Small Change from the Book Made It’s a Wonderful Life an Enduring Classic

The conflict has played out time and time again across the world, both before and after World War II. The ruling classes use capital to restrain the lower classes, turning them into workers whose labor goes to benefit the rich. Basic human needs, such as the “fundamental urge … deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace,” as Peter Bailey (Samuel S. Hinds) puts it, become simply leverage that the ruling class can use against the lower classes. 

Today, more and more workers live paycheck to paycheck, eking out an unstable living in the “gig economy,” while the extremely well-off use the riches they largely inherited to consolidate the world’s wealth. Homeownership remains an unrealized dream for not only Millennials, the youngest of whom will soon be entering their forties, but for Zoomers as well. 

In light of this harsh economic reality, It’s a Wonderful Life becomes, at worst, a powerful fantasy and, at best, a clarion call against those who subscribe to Potter’s views. When Potter hears of a family behind on their mortgage and threatens to foreclose, despite the fact that he’ll put children on the street, he barks “They’re not my children.” When Potter talks about Peter Bailey’s principles, he dismisses them as “high ideals” and insists, “ideals without common sense can ruin this town,” if common sense means putting profit before humans. 

As Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) tells Potter, “Not every heel was in Germany and Japan” during World War II. Nor is every heel like Potter on the movie screen. However, the world is full of George Baileys; people who understand that a community hangs together by the way they support one another and care for one another. People who know that others aren’t simply “cattle” to be corralled but humans whose flourishing helps us all. 

For someone who only pays attention to the final act of It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s easy to scoff at the message that Clarence leaves for George at the end: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” But thanks to the revisions that Capra, Goodrich, and Hackett made to “The Greatest Gift,” that statement has real weight. It attests to the power of the community to make a better world against the misers who want money and property all to themselves. 

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