The Hidden Key to “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Merry Christmas, HogPro All-Pros!

Here’s a challenging essay by Patrick Deneen that explains how George Bailey built a world without porches (on a graveyard, no less!) that destroyed any chance of the happy ending he enjoyed in Capra’s “Its a Wonderful Life.” Enjoy.

John, hoping your holidays were joyous


  1. VERY interesting and insightful essay that raises all sorts of key issues for the decisions we Americans have made over the past century or so for how we want to structure our individual and corporate lives. For those of you who want further reading on the development of American suburbanism and car-centric culture, I strongly recommend you read Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler for a biting yet thorough account of how we went from porch to patio (or more chillingly, to two car garage) and from diverse town to sterile suburb. Or look into Sidewalks of the Kingdom for a specifically Christian critique of American suburbanism.

  2. JohnABaptist says

    This was an interesting essay, built unfortunately on demonstrably false premises:

    One, the Front Porch was not removed from American houses by greedy loan officers, it was removed because it no longer served an economically justifiable purpose. It was killed by the invention of the gas or electric cooktop stove and the hot water heater.

    So long as American’s had to pour coal into a cast iron monster in the kitchen to boil water it was guaranteed that on wash day, bath day, or baking day, the interior of the house would be superheated to 100+ degrees 9 months out of the year in northern latitudes and 12 months in southern. The only escape was to sit in the breeze on your front porch which was intended to be a room without walls. Because of this very urgent need to have someplace cool to sit, the 10% to 15% extra you paid the builder to put a covered porch on your house was worth it. And of course, it went on the front of the house where there was a long expanse of street to let the wind blow as freely as possible. Had the porch been on the rear of the house, the wind would be blocked by the clothes drying, the hedges, the neighbor’s garage or stable, etc.

    Also two, people did not speak to strangers strolling by their houses in 1946, any more than they would today. They only spoke to people they already knew to be safe and harmless. They knew these people because everyone had their job, their church, their schools and the stores where they shopped at within walking distance of home because you couldn’t afford to drive a car everyday when wages were twenty-five to thirty cents an hour. Therefore, between work, church, schools and shopping, they generally knew everyone going past.

    Then the war ended and the 50’s economic boom hit, the GI’s came home to jobs paying $1.00 to $1.10 an hour, cars sold for $1,000, and your two bedroom in Levittown was only $8,000, $58 per month on a VA mortgage. The new houses had gas or electric stoves that barely heated up the kitchen, even in summer, and hallelujah the water heater did not heat the house up at all. No need to spend that extra $800 to add on a porch, use it to buy a car instead, and you can then drive to where jobs pay $1.40 or $1.50 and you were really on your way, keep moving up and one day your kids may actually go to college.

    You still knew all the folks that you worked with, and shopped with, and went to church with, you just didn’t meet them on the street where you lived.

    As to dear George Bailey? He did not build his sub-division on top of a graveyard. Capra’s symbology was that without George and his contributions so many more people died that they had to extend the graveyard into the area George used for homes. Where George housed the living, the un-Georged alternate present could only house the dead. The two “realities” are separate, don’t confuse them.

    So my dear friends, go back to Capra’s masterpiece with clear minds and fresh kleenex. The days of small town America have indeed gone the way of Feudal England and the Holy Roman Empire. They were all slain by Time and his friend Progress, not by Mr. Bailey.

  3. Here’s the bit of the script for “It’s A Wonderful Life” that mentions George’s visit to the cemetery.


    MEDIUM SHOT –– George and Clarence approach the tree from which the “Bailey Park” sign once hung. Now
    it is just outside a cemetery, with graves
    where the houses used to be.

    CLARENCE: Are you sure this is Bailey Park?

    GEORGE: Oh, I’m not sure of anything anymore. All I know is this should be Bailey Park. But where are
    the houses?

    The two walk into the cemetery.

    CLARENCE (as they go): You weren’t here to build them.

    CLOSE MOVING SHOT –– George wandering like a lost soul among the tombstones, Clarence trotting at his
    heels. Again George stops to stare with
    frightened eyes at:

    CLOSE SHOT –– a tombstone. Upon it is engraved a name, Harry Bailey. Feverishly George scrapes away
    the snow covering the rest of the inscription,
    and we read:

    CLOSE SHOT –– George and Clarence.

    CLARENCE: Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.

    So what I ask is: which is more likely; that George Bailey (in the “real reality” ) built houses on top of a cemetery, and all those good Catholic families like the Martinis cheerully moved into them,with nary a worry about desecration of the graves of the dead, or that the cemetery was a relatively new one, and those graves were of people who died after George’s birthdate came and went without George arriving. Pottersville may have had a higher death rate than Bedford Falls, just as it apparently had a higher rate of family breakdown. All that liquor and hot jazz, presumably. Wouldn’t the cemetery George knew in his “own” reality have been connected with the church, and not off on the outskirts of town? Because after all, George and his family and large chunks of Bedford Falls’ citizenry were praying, churchgoing people. Every time I see the beginning of IAWL, it surprises me all over again that Capra, in effect, did a movie about the power of intercessory prayer.

  4. It’s an interesting essay, but I think he fails to see the movie in the context of its time. It came out just after the end of WWII, when people wanted to make a fresh start and move into a newer home. It’s my understanding that there wasn’t much building going on during the war, so many towns added new sub divisions like Bailey Park.

    I grew up in a small town that was very much like Bedford Falls–everyone knew everyone (and their business), and most of the teenagers couldn’t wait to graduate and move somewhere else–anywhere else. I felt the same, so hearing George Bailey voice that sentiment echoed my own feelings and those of my friends. Oppotunities to do something different than farming or working in an office or as a clerk in a local department store were just not available–and I still don’t think they are in many of the small towns. If that is what makes someone happy, then they are content to stay, but many young people want to at least try something different. I don’t see that as a fault in the movie but as something that is very true to the nature of people who live in small communities. It’s that feeling that life must be better, more exciting, more enriching, if one can only live some place else–the grass is always greener sort of thing.

    I also understand his point about George wanting to give people a new place to live. Actually, the house/neighborhood we lived in from the time I was a baby until I was out of high school (I was born in 1949), was in a small four block area at the west side of town that probably looked like Bailey Park when it was new. The trees were small for a few years, but by the time I was 7 or 8 we all had large elm trees in the front yards. The development planted trees that were never there–they didn’t cut down any. This was in southwest Kansas, so all that was cut down was the tall grass. Trust me, it was an improvement to have trees planted .

    We also all had porches, though, and I think that’s the part of the essay where I think he makes the most insightful point–that move from having porches large enough for sitting to having the patio where families spent their summer evenings. It was lovely as a child to have time in the evening to sit on the front porch with my parents, watching other neighbors out for an evening walk (after the temperature finally cooled down a bit), stopping by to visit, or the kids out playing in the street after dark. It was not a busy traffic area, so cars weren’t racing by.

    (What really killed that friendly evening activity in neighborhoods wasn’t the move from the front porch to the back yard patio, but the move we all made inside to sit in front of our televisions in the evening. And that’s not something that we see in It’s a Wonderful Life.)

    I think the other thing the essay misses is that George Bailey saw the need for more housing in his town after the war ended. He wanted to help people move into their own home rather than the alternative–Potterville, a slum housing that many smaller towns did have. While my neighborhood was being built, there was a housing project on the other side of town that was built as well–Gardendale. They were apartments, but they quickly lost any value as affordable nice housing, and were just affordable but not any place that any one wanted to live, or at least not for long.

    What he misses in the essay is that for everyone in the town to continue to live on those lovely old streets with all the rich history it means that the town population has to stagnate. And most small towns that don’t see any population growth died a slow painful death. I am still saddened to see some of the smaller towns in Kansas that are now nothing more than an old abandoned filling station and a grain elevator. But towns can’t grow without having a place for the new residents to live–do you want Bailey Park or Potterville?

    I’ll have to rewatch the movie to see the cemetery scene. I always saw it that that land was turned into one, rather than a graveyard that was destroyed to make way for new housing. That’s quite different than what he talks about in the essay.

    But anyway, I’ve been trying to find the chance to watch one of my favorite movies again, so now I have a reason to watch as well.

    Thanks for the link, John. Christmas was lovely; we even had snow on Christmas Day, which I could have done without. And now Terry and I are just enjoying the rest of the time that he has off from work.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone.


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