What It Means to Be American
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Explore : It’s a Wonderful Life

Ideas

How It’s a Wonderful Life Seized on an Urbanizing America’s Nostalgia for the Small Town

As Mid-Century Americans Moved to Cities, Capra's Film Helped to Idealize Isolated White Communities

By Ryan Poll
December 6, 2018

It’s a Wonderful Life can be read through multiple prisms—as a Christmas movie, a family movie, a love story, an existential journey, and a celebration of the everyman. But Frank Capra’s movie invites audiences to consider it, first and foremost, as a small-town film.

The first image seen is a sign welcoming audiences: “YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS.” Even if initial audiences don’t know anything about this specific town, they “know” the community they about to enter: the American small …

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Ideas

What George Bailey’s Building and Loan Company Can Still Teach Us About Banking

In His Time and Ours, Big Lenders Often Get a Pass, While Small Banks and the Communities They Serve Are Left Vulnerable

By Robert E. Wright
December 6, 2018

The bank run scene in It’s a Wonderful Life always makes me cry real tears. If you care about America, you should love the scene too—and not just because it is a brilliant piece of cinematic storytelling.

The scene unfolds as George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, sets off on his honeymoon in a taxicab, only to realize that depositors have gathered outside a local bank, demanding their money. Instead of continuing on his honeymoon, George hustles to his beloved Bailey …

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Identities

There Is a Real Bedford Falls—It’s My Upstate New York Town

An Uncanny Physical Resemblance and a Frank Capra Visit Connect Seneca Falls to His Holiday Classic

By Frances T. Barbieri
December 6, 2018

Bedford Falls, the town that is the real star of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, is a fictional place. But it closely resembles a real town.

I live there.

The evidence is strong, if circumstantial, that Seneca Falls, New York—where I’m executive director of the historical society—provided the basis for Bedford Falls. Our town and Frank Capra’s mythical town share geography, appearance, and stories in ways that are uncanny, and reveal how thin the line can be between matter and myth.

Both …

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Ideas

Our Favorite Christmas Classic Is Really a Study in American Suicide

It’s a Wonderful Life Delivers a Haunting Treatise on the Religious, Legal, and Economic Implications of Taking One’s Life

By Richard Bell
December 6, 2018

Isn’t it a little odd that our most cherished Christmas film is about a man seeking to end his life by jumping off a bridge? Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is full of traditional holiday themes like romance, friendship, and family. It’s unabashedly sentimental too—“Capra-corn” in its purest form. But it’s also a film about suicide—its causes, costs, and consequences.

The movie’s dramatic arc is built around 40-year-old George Bailey’s attempt to kill himself. The film opens with prayers offered …

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Ideas

Why George Bailey Is the American Jesus

Reflecting a Postwar Religious Revival, the Long-Suffering Hero Played by Jimmy Stewart Lives a Life of Self-Sacrifice and Resists Temptation

By Patrick Allitt
December 6, 2018

In the 15 years after World War II, a religious revival swept through America. Records were set for church attendance and new church construction, a succession of religious books made the best-seller list, and religious leaders like Billy Graham became prominent figures in public life. Looking back, the 1940s and 1950s resemble other great revivals or “awakenings” that have punctuated American history.

In part, this particular awakening was a response to the war and its aftermath. America’s Protestants, Catholics, …

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Ideas

Frank Capra’s Formula for Taming American Capitalism

It’s a Wonderful Life Prescribed Community and Empathy as the Remedy to a Callous Economic System

By Maribel Morey
December 6, 2018

From the Gilded Age and until well into the Great Depression, Americans engaged in one of the most consequential debates in the country’s history: how best to address the economic inequities and societal problems stemming from industrialization, and relatedly, wealth maximization in the private sector.

For some, a bureaucratic state was the answer. As was argued first by the Socialist Party of America in the early 20th century, the state could equalize wealth inequalities. Later, with the Depression, a great …

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