What ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Teaches Us About American History

The Christmas classic, released 75 years ago, conveys many messages beyond having faith in one another

George and Mary Bailey, played by James Stewart and Donna Reed, hug their children in a still from "It's a Wonderful Life"
The 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life stars James Stewart as down-on-his-luck George Bailey and Donna Reed as his wife, Mary. Photo by Herbert Dorfman / Corbis via Getty Images

More than once every year, and not always around Christmas, I sit down to watch my all-time favorite film, Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The film tells the story of George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, who encounters a crisis on Christmas Eve when his elderly uncle misplaces $8,000 from the shareholders of the family business, leading George to believe he is a failure—worth more dead than alive. A guardian angel, sent from the heavens to protect him, gives George a glimpse of what the world would be like without him. Persuaded of his value to his community, he breaks out of his suicidal depression, returns home to his family and realizes that the love and fellowship of others is what makes one’s life truly wonderful.

As millions of people will do this December, I tear up at the end when George’s friends, neighbors and family come together to replace the money and demonstrate to him that “no man is a failure who has friends.” As a graduate of a Jesuit education, I have always been moved by the theme of selflessness in the film and felt that George’s life of service matched the Jesuit motto of “Men for Others” that I grew up with.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE | Official Trailer | Paramount Movies

Beyond the inspirational qualities and memorable moments that make the movie a beloved holiday staple, It’s a Wonderful Life can be explored and viewed in another way: as a presentation of history on the screen. In 2015, staff at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History started the History Film Forum to explore film as public history. Many Americans and people from all over the world learn history from movies; the discussions we’ve hosted among scholars, filmmakers and audiences explore that dynamic in valuable and meaningful ways. This year, the forum examined both narrative and documentary films ranging from Questlove’s remarkable Summer of Soul on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival to The Courier with Benedict Cumberbatch, which looks at the thrilling tale of a Cold War-era spy. Every year, films such as these are explicitly intended to present historical stories and impress upon viewers a little-known narrative of the past. But other films that don’t have that educational intention nevertheless end up edifying (or miseducating) their viewers about history, particularly when watched decades after their release. In fact, as my colleague, the museum’s entertainment curator Ryan Lintelman, said in our recent discussion on It’s a Wonderful Life, “Some of the movies that are seen by the most people around the world probably have had the most impact even though they’re sometimes not directly dealing with weighty political issues.”

At the beginning of the film, after pleas on behalf of George reach the heavens, two angelic figures converse on how to respond. The angels, Joseph and Franklin, who appear as clusters of light in space, bring in an apprentice named Clarence, a clockmaker in life, who hasn’t yet earned his wings by offering help to a human. Though Clarence is eager to save George as he struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, Franklin instructs Clarence to sit down and tells him, “If you’re going to help a man you want to know something about him, don’t you?” As Clarence gets a background lesson on George’s life, beginning with his brother’s fall through the ice in 1919 through the end of World War II, the audience gets Frank Capra’s version of small-town American history.

With a panel of experts including the Smithsonian’s Lintelman, historian Jason Higgins, film critic Nell Minow, Leo Landis, curator of the State Historical Society of Iowa (the home state of actor Donna Reed who played Mary Bailey), and Reed’s daughter, Mary Owen, we explored American history as presented in a holiday favorite.

It's a Wonderful Life | History Film Forum

After showing the 12-year-old George saving his brother’s life in the frozen ice of Bedford Falls, New York, Capra takes the audience, via Clarence’s eyes, through the ripple effects of the heroic moment. George catches a bad cold from the rescue; the resulting infection costs him his hearing in one ear and prevents him from returning to his job at the drug store for weeks. When he does, he finds his boss, Mr. Gower, despondent, irritable and drunk in the back room, a common theme in a film that, despite its prominence as a Christmas movie, is quite dark.

George finds a telegram sitting on the cash register that brings the news of Gower’s son’s death from the 1919 flu pandemic. Minow describes the reveal as a “classic example of cinematic storytelling of which Capra was a master.”

“We didn’t have to see the telegram arrive, we didn’t have to see Mr. Gower receive it, the way that we are informed of it is just perfect because we are looking at it through a young George’s perspective,” adds Minow. Lintelman suggests that Capra uses history to establish themes of prayer and grief and loss right at the start of the film to connect with themes that would be very familiar to 1946 audiences just coming out of the death and destruction of World War II. Audiences today will learn (or relearn) the terrible toll of the 1918 influenza pandemic that took the lives of about 675,000 Americans and recognize parallels with the uncertainty and devastating grief of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A little-remembered history finds its way into one of the film’s most iconic scenes, when Reed’s Mary and Stewart’s George share a phone conversation with their wealthy businessman friend Sam Wainwright, who lives in New York City. To help George, who’s at a crossroads in his life, Sam offers them some illegal insider-trading tips as he reminds George of an idea they once discussed to make plastics out of soybeans. This hearkens back to an effort popularized in the 1920s through the early 1940s, most prominently by automotive titan Henry Ford, known as “chemurgy.” According to Landis, an agricultural historian, chemurgy was the “idea [of] taking farm crops and making industrial products out of them ... growing rural America out of the Depression with one foot in industry, one foot in agriculture.”

Henry Ford swinging an ax at the plastic trunk of his car
Industrialist Henry Ford conducted experiments on crops in hopes of figuring out how to "grow a car." Bettman via Getty Images

Ford set up laboratories and employed scientists to experiment on crops to determine if he could “grow a car.” After experimenting on everything from cantaloupes to dandelion seeds, the researchers had the most success with soybeans. Though the effort succeeded in creating some plastic components for cars and allowed Ford to swing an ax at the plastic trunk of his personal car for publicity, soybean plastics didn’t result in the success or riches portrayed in the film, but the research did result in a plethora of food products, which in turn pushed soybeans from a marginal crop in North America to one of the largest. While modern audiences focus on the incredible tension in this exchange between George and Mary on the phone, hidden in the background is an obscure history lesson of a quest for solutions to revive the nation during the Great Depression.

Yet another famous scene speaks to the film’s portrayal of this bleak economic period. After George and Mary finally marry, George comes across an opportunity to get out of Bedford Falls for their honeymoon, including, as he says to their cab driver friend, Ernie, “A whole week in New York. A whole week in Bermuda. The highest hotels, the oldest champagne, the richest caviar, the hottest music, and the prettiest wife!”

But history interrupts this plan as well. As they head out of town, George sees commotion at the bank and his family business, Bailey’s Building and Loan. During the Depression, many small-town banks failed, as did the one in the fictional Bedford Falls. The sight of the Building and Loan’s shareholders panicking would be familiar to audiences who had lived through that moment themselves. The film presents the story of a run on a bank through the calmness of Jimmy Stewart’s character. As Higgins says, “George appeals to calm the hysteria of people by sharing stories of hardship and by showing them, in very simplistic terms, how the system actually works.”

George Bailey sits in a chair in his living room, surrounded by his wife and children
By the end of the film, Bailey realizes that love and the companionship of others make life truly wonderful. Photo by RKO Pictures / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Lintelman adds that Capra presents a version of history through Lionel Barrymore’s spectacularly monstrous character Henry F. Potter that places blame on unbridled capitalistic greed. He states that in Capra’s history, Potter “is the ultimate villain, not only of the film but of the Great Depression... these unseen people behind their mahogany desks that are controlling the futures and the fortunes of the people, of the nation and were able to manipulate this global crisis that consumed everyone.” For audiences today, this presents a story of 1930s America that is less defined by historical research than by Capra’s worldview and compelling storytelling.

When presenting history, because of Hollywood’s own historical lack of diversity, films often fall short in giving an accurate picture of the racial diversity of the past. It’s a Wonderful Life struggles with presenting a multidimensional story of women in America in the first half of the 20th century. Minow argues that the portrayal of Mary and other women in the film is the film’s greatest weakness. “Donna Reed brought everything she had to this role, which was a considerable amount, but Mary isn’t portrayed as a real person,” she says.

Higgins agrees that much of the time Mary is presented as an ideal of “republican motherhood” that centers women’s roles on domestic affairs and educating children as civically responsible citizens. She does break out of that mold in many parts of the film, Higgins cautions, to be a more real and empowered character. “At the end, it’s really Mary who saves George. ... She’s the one working at the grassroots level to really save her family. Isn’t that an expression of feminism in itself?”

When Clarence finally uses his supernatural power to show George what the world would be like without him, Minow notes that this plot line takes all the agency from Mary. Without George, Mary is alone, weak and unfulfilled, closing up the library on Christmas Eve. “The idea that without having a husband that she’d become this skittish old maid is kind of horrifying,” he adds.

Lillian Randolph as Annie, the Baileys' Black domestic worker
Lillian Randolph portrayed Annie, the Baileys' Black domestic worker. Photo by CBS via Getty Images

The portrayal of early-20th century women in It’s a Wonderful Life is further complicated by its lack of dialogue with race in America. Played by Lillian Randolph, the character of Annie is a middle-aged Black woman and the Baileys’ domestic worker. Her time on screen amounts to about 2 of the 131 minutes of the total movie’s run time. In that short time, Annie’s role, and by extension the place of Black people in this story, is presented as service to, and comic relief for, the white characters. Randolph, a supremely talented actor and singer, took the roles she was offered, which often forced her to play one-dimensional and demeaning characters, and the Annie role holds true to that paradigm.

Annie is portrayed as being a fixture for years in the Bailey family, as she is seen preparing and serving food, assisting in Harry Bailey’s wedding reception, and engaging in family politics and discussions. In one scene, as George and his father sit at the dinner table deep in conversation about the future of the Bailey Building and Loan, Annie pauses from clearing dishes to eavesdrop on George’s reply about delaying college to continue working there. George, noticing her interest in their conversation, playfully, but in a way that clarifies her inferior status in the household, invites her to “draw up a chair. Then you'd be more comfortable, and you could hear everything that’s going on.” According to Higgins, this dynamic between white families and Black domestic workers “goes back to an era of slavery in which enslaved women in the domestic households would often serve as a central point of communication among enslaved populations, as they would take news that they overheard and then share it with the community as an act of resistance.”

The interactions between Annie and the Bailey family contain even darker themes. On the night that Harry Bailey graduates from high school, Annie has been busy making desserts for the graduation party as well as dinner for the family. As Harry gets ready to leave for the dance, he chases Annie around the dining room table playfully asking her for a kiss and saying “Annie, I’m in love with you. There’s a moon out tonight.” The stage directions in the screenplay depict what happened next:

As he pushes her through the kitchen door, he slaps her fanny. She screams. The noise is cut off by the swinging door. George and his mother sit down at the table.

This assault and violation of a Black woman by a white teenaged boy is presented just for laughs, which in itself is telling. Capra must have felt the World War II-era audience would see this as just a playful moment and were unconcerned that Annie was seen as somewhat accepting or even welcoming of getting slapped and chased around the house by a high-school boy. To illustrate this point, Higgins posits the roles being reversed. “Just imagine,” he says, “the difference in perspective here if you put a single white woman working in this same job in a Black family, and the 18-year-old Black male is chasing around Mary, and how an audience would have reacted to that. It does show the double standard in these constructions of gender and race.”

Lastly, while Frank Capra created a propaganda film for the United States government in 1944 called The Negro Soldier, which presented an inclusive history showing Black involvement in U.S. wars, politics and culture since the Revolution, a far less flattering picture of African Americans emerges when George’s wish to never have been born is granted by Clarence. Bedford Falls, his hometown, is transformed into the vice-ridden Pottersville. Capra’s hints at the degradation of the town come in the form of the Black music, jazz, heard pouring out of the taverns and Dime-a-Dance halls. Higgins also noted that Mary’s fate as an old maid in this alternative universe, portrayed as hideous and sad, is presented as perfectly fine, appropriate and desirable for Annie in the real world.

The Negro Soldier (1944)
James Stewart in a United States Army Air Corps uniform, circa 1942
James Stewart, the actor who played George Bailey, served in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. Photo by Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

The nation’s history with European immigration is represented in the movie through George Bailey’s greatest professional success: the creation of the low-income eponymous housing project Bailey Park. His work with the community through the Building and Loan helps families, many of them immigrants, escape from Mr. Potter’s slums, where they paid high rent for low-quality housing. A powerful scene in the film when the Martini family moves from Potter’s Field to Bailey Park illustrates this egalitarian work that makes George’s life wonderful.

“If you were to talk to Frank Capra, he would say that his efforts in diversity in the film were to include an Italian family, which he based on his own family, and by Hollywood standards that was diversity back then,” says Minow. According to Higgins, about four million Italians immigrated to the United States between the 1880s and 1920s, and many faced discrimination, resulting in around 10,000 Italian Americans being incarcerated when the United States and Italy fought in World War II. This prejudice is alluded to in the film when Mr. Potter tries to buy George off with the promise of a high-paying job to bring an end to Bailey Park. The greedy capitalist asks the idealistic George if he is really going to waste his life “playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters.” At a time when, as Landis pointed out, Catholic immigrants in rural communities and small towns were the subject of threats, harassment and terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan, the portrayal of the Americanization of an immigrant family like the Martinis, despite the stereotypical elements we see in their depiction in the film, was Capra’s ode to the American Dream.

Just at the end of Clarence’s background briefing on George, he hears a story of World War II. One scene we see describing Bedford Falls during the war is Mr. Potter heading the local draft board and cold-heartedly choosing every name that came across his desk as 1A, or fit for military service. Higgins explains that by exercising their vast discretion in choosing who would be drafted and enforcing existing social hierarchy, draft boards were organizations “that effectively ensured social, economic and racial inequality throughout the 20th century from World War II to the Vietnam war.”

Seeing this powerful, wealthy, and uncaring man having such control over other men’s lives presents a sobering way to remember the war. While Harry Bailey makes headlines as a Navy flyer who shoots down two kamikaze planes and prevents them from crashing into a transport ship full of soldiers, George and Mary and others in Bedford Falls support the war effort the way millions of Americans did. Mary ran the USO and George served as everything from air raid warden to organizer of paper drives to scrap drives to rubber drives. As Higgins points out, the actor behind George, Jimmy Stewart, commanded four engine bombers in World War II and came home suffering from PTSD to the point that he questioned how he could ever go back to acting in Hollywood. The dark and tortured emotional struggles that George endures throughout the film speak to the trauma millions of Americans were living with following the war just as Stewart was.

Learning history of course is not the reason any of us watch It’s a Wonderful Life, and despite its darkness, its lessons that creating community and serving your fellow human beings can lead and sustain us through challenging times have never been more salient than they are today. It is interesting, however, to look back 75 years to when the film was made and explore how history was presented in a Hollywood film as that can tell us a lot about the nation we were and help guide us forward to what we want to become.

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