The Impassioned Populism of George Bailey


As part of our family’s Thanksgiving Day tradition we once again watched the 1946 classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart. I’m not going to rehash the plot of Frank Capra’s most famous film at this time, as no doubt the vast majority of readers are familiar with it. Needless to say, the theme of Stewart & Capra’s masterpiece is timeless and universal: No man is a failure who has friends.

While watching the movie again this year something else struck me: the overtly populist message of the film, most particularly as it is represented with Stewart’s Oscar nominated performance as George Bailey, the quintessential small town American.

It is during George’s defense of the family operated Bailey Bros. Building and Loan against the evil, aging, oligarch Mr. Potter (brilliantly portrayed by the legendary actor Lionel Barrymore) that we are treated to the populist theme of the movie.

In this current year of Brexit, Bernie and ultimately Trump, George Bailey’s impassioned defense of the working man against the elite takes on an entirely new sense of meaning.

Potter: …and all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir ’em up and fill their head with a lot of impossible ideas. Now, I say —

Bailey: Just a minute – just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. Just a minute. Now, you’re right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was — Why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get outta your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? Why — here, you’re all businessmen here. Don’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers?

You, you said that they — What’d you say just a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what?! Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken-down that — You know how long it takes a workin’ man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.

Potter: I’m not interested in your book. I’m talkin’ about the Building and Loan.

Bailey: I know very well what you’re talking about. You’re talking about something you can’t get your fingers on, and it’s galling you. That’s what you’re talking about, I know. Well…I’ve said too much. I — You’re…the Board here. You do what you want with this thing. There’s just one thing more, though. This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter. Come on, Uncle Billy!