What does it mean for a film to be seen? If any film can be said to have been seen, Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life would seem to be it. The film has played on television endlessly for decades, particularly during the holidays, when certain channels have taken to showing it on days-long continuous loops, as if to ensure that no viewer could possibly fail to see it. Even those who can’t distinctly remember having sat down to watch it can confidently rehearse the essence of its plot: It is Christmas Eve in the small town of Bedford Falls, and the local banker George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) finds himself in legal trouble; he is tempted to commit suicide and wishes that he had never been born. But an angel named Clarence saves him by granting him his wish and showing him what the world would have been like if he had not existed. Recoiling from this vision, George is saved, and the townsfolk celebrate by singing a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.” This much we know all too well. But is it possible that we have never really seen this film? Beneath the familiar story and the annual ritual, might its real significance have somehow eluded us?
Several recent critics of It’s a Wonderful Life have made just this claim, arguing that its past viewers and the many critics who have written about it have not seen the film for what it is. According to these critics, what a proper viewing ultimately reveals is that for all its “classic” status, It’s a Wonderful Life suffers from a fundamental artistic failure. All of these critics frame their doubts about the film in strikingly similar terms, and in terms that are rather surprising in the case of a fiction film. For all of them charge It’s a Wonderful Life with a kind of falsity. In their view, the film is not meant merely to represent a heartwarming Christmas story, or a tale of one man’s descent into despair and his eventual redemption. Rather, they see the film as essentially concerned with representing certain aspects of life in the United States of America, and the heart of their criticism is that the film falsifies the reality of the American life it intends to depict. These contemporary critics of It’s a Wonderful Life have rightly unsettled the lazy and sentimental habits of viewing that have built up around the film, and have challenged us to see it afresh. I take these critics to be on essentially the right track in suggesting that the stakes of viewing this film are deeply caught up with coming to understand and assess its vision of America. But I want to raise certain doubts about whether even they have yet seen It’s a Wonderful Life.
Contemporary complaints about the film are particularly addressed to its central episode—the “Pottersville” sequence—in which the angel Clarence shows George a vision of what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born. In the vision, Bedford Falls has become Pottersville, a town dominated by the spirit of Bailey’s rival, the ruthless banker Henry F. Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore). The premise of the sequence is that George’s rejection of his own existence deprives his hometown of its identity as well. In subsequently choosing to be restored to life, he is thus also choosing to restore Bedford Falls and to reject the alternative represented by Pottersville. The success of this sequence is decisive for the overall success of the film, since it is through this sequence that the film’s central problem—the problem of whether George will choose to live or to kill himself—is meant to be resolved.
The critics charge that the Pottersville sequence, and thus the film as a whole, fails because it turns on a conception of America that is naïve or sentimental and, if not untenable in 1946, certainly untenable today. In their view of the film, George recoils from Pottersville because it is modern, liberal and urbane; to them, his rejection of it and his decision to affirm his own existence are meant to represent a defense of small-town conservative values and rural ideals. But they argue that the film fails, insofar as we can no longer take these values and ideals seriously.
These critics have rightly emphasized that the film’s success hangs in an essential way on its vision of America. But in my view their critiques are targeted more at what they assume the film’s picture of America must be, than at what it really is. In particular, they miss altogether an essential aspect of the film’s sense of America: namely, that it is a place in part constituted by a certain openness to the strange and to strangers. The film imagines America as a place that is in part constituted by a certain kind of person, or a certain way of being a person, represented by George Bailey: one who is open to the strange and the stranger. In showing what America would be like without him, George’s story reveals what America would lack in the absence of this sort of person. By failing to see what Capra sees in America, the critics miss what is profound, and timely, in the film’s vision of that place.
To properly consider the question of whether It’s a Wonderful Life succeeds or fails in its representation of America, let us first consider what it is for a film to be set in a place, and more specifically what it is for a fiction film to contain as part of its artistic content a representation of a real place. When we think of films that are located in a real place, we tend to think, first of all, of films that use location shots or explicit references to real locations—in the way that a film like L. A. Story, for example, uses shots of Venice Beach or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But this is not the only way in which a film can lay claim to a particular setting. What is more fundamental is that the film calls on us to see it as representing a certain place. When a film is set in a particular place, it is a representation of that place: a certain vision or conception of that place forms part of the film’s content. When a film sets a given story in a particular place, it means for our understanding of that story to be shaped by how we see that place and, conversely, it means for our understanding of that place to be shaped by the film’s events, as events that are in a certain way representative of that place and the possibilities it affords.
It’s a Wonderful Life does not contain location shots (it was filmed on a soundstage) and the town of Bedford Falls is fictional (though it is generally thought to represent upstate New York). Nonetheless, the critics are correct in assuming that the film takes the United States of America as its location, in the sense that part of its content is a certain vision of American life and its possibilities. In the case of It’s a Wonderful Life, part of its aesthetic content is a particular vision or conception of America as a place. Capra’s film makes an artistic claim about the kind of place America is, and presents its fictional events, characters, and even its fictional locations as in a certain way representative of America. We can then say that the film is set in the United States and thus belongs to a class of fiction films that naturally invite critical assessment in terms of how they represent a real setting.
To see how fiction films can make claims about what a particular place is like, let’s return to our example of L. A. Story and Los Angeles. In L. A. Story, Los Angeles is depicted as a surreal landscape of endless sunshine and traffic, in which your destiny is revealed to you by an electronic highway sign. For a different vision of the same place, consider Boyz n the Hood, in which Los Angeles is depicted as a scene of urban decay and chaos, where decades of neglect have created ghettos caught in inescapable cycles of violence. It is part of the creative work of films like these to attempt to give us imaginative access, through their characters and stories, to a sense of what Los Angeles is like as a place. Both films invite praise, or blame, on the grounds that they offer a true (or false) representation of Los Angeles. In this mode of critical conversation, we—surprisingly, but very naturally—praise or criticize a work of fiction on the grounds that it does, or does not, succeed in representing a real location in a truthful and insightful way. The question here is not so much whether the film’s placement of a particular story in a particular setting is “realistic” or “believable” in any ordinary sense. Some of the best films about Los Angeles, to continue with the same example, are highly improbable or fantastic (think of Kiss Me Deadly or Mulholland Drive), and yet succeed in creating powerful representations of the city that both resonate with and shape our sense of what it is like.
A film’s presentation of a place can do more than succeed or fail to correspond to our preexisting idea of that place. It may also challenge, extend, or seek to modify our idea of the place, in ways that may take us by surprise if we attend to them. It may also point to deficiencies in our conception of a place, or to overlooked or under-considered characteristics of a place that are, or could be, important to how we imagine that place, both in terms of what it is and what it can be. When we casually view a film in terms of its setting, we can easily and mistakenly impose on the film our present preoccupations and preconceived ideas about that location, rather than attending to the creative work the film does with it. Such films make it clear that to set a film in a location is not, or not merely, to reflect or draw on our prior understanding of what that place is like, but can also be a matter of reshaping that understanding so as to allow that place to be seen in a new light.
Contemporary critics of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life are right when they claim that the question of place—what a place is, what it means to be in a place, what it is to be a part of a place—is central to our response to the film. Yet I believe they fall victim to the casual form of misinterpretation noted above, in which we impose on the film our own preoccupations about its location, rather than attending to the distinctive challenge presented by the film’s vision of it.
Before we come to the critics’ arguments, we need first to remind ourselves of certain details of the film that will be essential for understanding both the critics’ reactions and what goes missing in them. From the film’s opening scenes, we are made to understand that George Bailey never felt at home in Bedford Falls. As a boy, he longed to be an explorer, to travel to other places, to see “Italy, Baghdad, Samarkand.” As a young man, he dreamed of becoming an architect. He wanted to “design modern cities,” to build “airfields, skyscrapers a hundred stories high, bridges a mile long.” He longed to explore, and to create, places quite different from his hometown. But George never got out of Bedford Falls. His father died suddenly, leaving him to inherit the family building and loan business, and so George has instead built another kind of place, Bailey Park, a small housing development where working-class people, including African-Americans and Italian immigrants, can own their own houses.
George has thrown his whole life into the Bailey Park project, but he is also intensely conscious of how little respected and rewarded his efforts are in Bedford Falls. In a revealing but easily overlooked scene, George and his wife Mary, played by Donna Reed, are helping Mr. Martini, a friend of George’s and an Italian immigrant, to move into a new house in Bailey Park. Just as George is helping Martini to unload his furniture, George’s high-school friend Sam Wainwright appears. Sam is an obnoxiously successful businessman, back in Bedford Falls for a visit. Though he doesn’t want to show it, George is clearly embarrassed at being seen by Sam helping a poor immigrant like Martini.
The same prejudices are embodied by the villainous banker Mr. Potter. Potter mocks George’s attempt to help Italians like Martini as “playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic-eaters.” When Potter offers George a job with better pay, more respect, and plenty of opportunities for travel, George is seriously tempted, and asks for twenty-four hours to think it over. But then he suddenly refuses. In disgust, he tells Potter, “You sit around here, and you spin your little webs, and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider.” And yet, when George returns home that night, he feels uneasy with the decision he has made and unsure what his own life really represents in the “whole vast configuration of things.”
The action of the film is set in motion when George’s uncle and business partner Billy loses an $8,000 deposit, just as a state bank examiner arrives to check the accounts of the Bailey Building and Loan. In desperation, George is reduced to begging Potter for money to cover the missing deposit. Potter turns him away with ridicule, and George is terrified at the prospect of “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.” He goes home to sulk, then flies into a rage. He leaves for Martini’s bar, where he drinks too much whiskey and gets into a fistfight. As George is driving away from the bar, he crashes his car into a tree. He ends up standing on a bridge, about to throw himself into the town’s icy, fast-moving river.
At this moment, Clarence appears and reveals to George what the world would be like if he had never been born. George’s vision of Pottersville makes him decide not to kill himself after all, despite bankruptcy and scandal and prison. He returns to his house, where he knows the bank examiner and the police will be waiting for him, and enters with a triumphant cry of “Whoopee! I’m going to jail!” But it turns out that, while George was in Pottersville, his friends have raised the missing $8,000, and George and the Bailey Building and Loan are saved. The film’s central concern, however, is not with whether the missing money can be raised, but rather with how George can find the will to live—and this is the special burden that the Pottersville sequence has to bear. The central critical question for this film is whether this sequence succeeds in giving us a compelling explanation as to why George changes his mind and chooses to live. What is it that George sees about his life that makes him decide that his life is worth living after all? Pottersville is a representation of what the town would be without George. Its function is to let George (and us) see something about him, about the life he has lived, and the place where he has lived it, that he did not previously appreciate. In the absence of George, the identity of the town itself is lost, changed from Bedford Falls to Pottersville. Yet it is not a different town; it is the same town, with something that was essential to it gone out of it. In confronting this loss and transformation, what does George learn about himself, and about the place he has lived, that allows him to reaffirm his existence there? 1
Taking up the thought that It’s a Wonderful Life is meant to function as a representation of America, we can see that the Pottersville sequence will raise similar questions about America as well. Just as George is faced with the question of whether to affirm his own existence, we might see the film as addressing the question of whether we as Americans can affirm the lives we live in our country. Pottersville, we might say, is a representation of what America would be without George Bailey, or the sort of character in American life that George Bailey represents. What do we learn by seeing what Bedford Falls becomes in Pottersville, that might allow us to affirm the existence of America?
In order to approach this question, we need first to get a clear description of what happens in the Pottersville sequence, so that we can begin to bring its distinctive concerns properly into view. The sequence is dream-like, surreal and deliberately fragmentary. It is meant to induce in us as viewers a kind of disorientation that helps us to sympathetically imagine George’s experience in this uncannily familiar yet unfamiliar town. Yet if we attend closely to what happens in it, we begin to see that it returns again and again, obsessively, to the same preoccupation: the question of the immigrant or stranger, and more generally that of openness and vulnerability to the unknown. The sequence begins when George dives into the river, not to drown himself, but to save the angel Clarence, who falls in, as he later explains to George, “in order to save you.” As George and Clarence are drying their clothes in a shack on the bridge, George tells Clarence that he wishes he had “never been born.” Clarence grants his wish. “You’ve never been born,” Clarence tells him. “You don’t exist, you haven’t a care in the world—no worries, no obligations, no $8,000 to get, no Potter looking for you with the sheriff.” In response to this news, George announces that he needs “a couple of good stiff drinks.”
George and Clarence walk to Martini’s bar, only to find that Martini’s is now Nick’s, a tough joint run by a man George knows as one of Martini’s employees. When George asks to see Martini, Nick does not know whom he is talking about, and thinks he wants to order a martini to drink. When George calls Nick by his name, Nick becomes angry and says “Where do you get off callin’ me Nick?…I don’t know you from Adam’s off ox.” Just then George sees Mr. Gower, the town’s druggist and George’s boyhood employer, entering the bar. When George says to Gower, “This is George Bailey, don’t you know me?” Gower responds simply, “No…no.” Finding that he is not known by those who he assumes know him, George becomes frightened and confused: in Pottersville, George is a stranger.
George and Clarence are thrown out of Nick’s bar, and George announces that he is “going home” to see his wife and family. As he enters the main street of the town he is greeted, not by the familiar painted sign that reads, “You are now in Bedford Falls,” but by a blazing neon sign that reads simply “Pottersville.” Along the main street, where there were formerly a movie theater, a department store, and the Bailey Building and Loan, there are now pool halls, pawnshops, burlesque shows, and nightclubs with names like the Blue Moon, the Bamboo Room, and the Indian Club. Standing in front of a “Dime a Dance,” George recognizes his childhood sweetheart Violet Bick (played by Gloria Grahame). Violet is being dragged into a wagon by the police, and presumably arrested for solicitation. She screams at the policeman arresting her, “I know every big shot in this town…I know Potter!”
George sees his friend Ernie, a taxicab driver, and asks to be driven home. When George calls Ernie by name, Ernie tells him, “I ain’t never seen you before in my life.” Ernie takes him to the old house that George and Mary restored, which is now nothing but a decaying ruin covered with cobwebs and graffiti. Ernie has decided that George is “bats,” and calls the policeman, Bert, for help. When Bert appears, George cries out, “Bert, thank God you’re here!” But Bert is convinced that George is a lunatic, and he responds, “Why don’t you be a good kid, and we’ll take you in to a doctor.” George flees Bert and runs to his mother’s house, now known as Ma Bailey’s Boarding House. When his mother answers the door, George tells her, “Mother, this is George,” to which she responds, “George who?” Finding that he is not known by anyone in town, George decides that he needs to talk to the last man he saw before the angel appeared, Martini, and runs to Martini’s house in Bailey Park. But in the world of Pottersville, Bailey Park is only a cemetery. George demands that Clarence tell him where his wife Mary is. Clarence tells him that she is “an old maid” who “never married.” As George continues to ask for Mary, Clarence reluctantly reveals that she is “about to close up the library.” George waits outside the library, watching as Mary steps out; he calls her name, and she is frightened of him. She walks away quickly, but he follows her. He grabs her and says, “Help me, Mary, where’s our kids? I need you, Mary.” She screams for help and flees into a crowded bar, where George pursues her. Surrounded by men he thinks he knows, George calls out, “Tom—Ed—Charlie!” asking them to confirm that Mary is indeed his wife. Instead they restrain him and call for the police. Again the policeman Bert appears. George escapes from the crowd, punches Bert, and flees down the street while Bert fires after him with his pistol.
George runs back to the bridge and calls out for Clarence. “Help me, Clarence,” he pleads, “get me back. I don’t care what happens to me, get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please, please—I want to live again…I want to live again…I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again.” With this reaffirmation of his will to live, George’s existence is restored, and he returns home to find that the $8,000 has been raised and the Building and Loan saved. But George knows none of this at the time that he forms his wish to “live again.” The only thing that has changed his mind from intending to kill himself before Clarence appeared, to now choosing to live again, is what he has seen in Pottersville. What does that vision show him about himself that restores his desire to live? What precisely did George see in Pottersville that moves him to affirm his existence in Bedford Falls?
On one level, George’s horror at Pottersville and his wish to escape it represents a completely obvious and natural reaction. It would indeed be a strange and disturbing experience to find that everyone you know, including your own mother, does not recognize your face and has never heard of you. So we might understand George’s wish to “live again” simply as his wish to return to what is known to him and familiar. But if this is all we can say, then we have not yet succeeded in understanding the work that the Pottersville sequence is meant to do in the film. This response might explain why George is motivated to leave Pottersville, but it does nothing to justify his larger decision to live rather than commit suicide. It doesn’t explain how the vision changes George’s mind about the life he has led up to now: he wants out of Pottersville, but how does that answer the question of whether he should commit suicide? He could leave Pottersville and then commit suicide. But no one watching the film thinks that this is what he will do or should do.
George’s life has been marked by a particular set of ideals lived out in a particular place: ideals that made him refuse the job with Potter, that made him see in Martini a friend rather than a “garlic eater,” that made him want to see the world and envision the architecture of the future, and that ultimately led him to raise a family and run a business. But in George’s life, these ideals have led to disappointment again and again, to the point where his only reward for them seems to be “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.” George wants to know why it has been worthwhile for him to live with the special burden of these ideals, despite all that they have cost him. What the Pottersville sequence reveals is that in the absence of George and his ideals, the whole character of the town is changed. The task of the Pottersville sequence is thus to make George choose, perhaps really for the first time, to live the life he has lived. In order for George to do that, he needs to see more clearly what his life has been, and how it has been caught up with the fate of the place where he has lived it.
The central conceit in the vision of Pottersville is that if George had not existed, then no one would have done any of the things that George did in his life. For example, no one else would have fixed up the old house that George and Mary live in, and no one else would have resisted the influence of Potter. Thus, in rejecting his own existence, George is not merely rejecting the existence of a particular person; he is rejecting a whole type or character—the sort of person who would live the way that he has. He is thus also rejecting the sort of place in which this character lives. Pottersville represents the film’s vision of the town with this character gone out of it, an alternate version of the town in which this sort of character denies and repudiates itself. The Pottersville sequence is thus meant to show the value of living the specific kind of life that George has lived, by showing what this place without that character would be. In the film, the loss of this character is represented as a radical loss of identity: just as George’s rejection of himself deprives him of his identity, so the loss of George’s character deprives Bedford Falls of its identity and turns it into Pottersville. In the film’s representation of America, George’s rejection of himself similarly threatens to deprive America of its identity, by taking out of it a kind of character that the film imagines to be essential to it. But how exactly does the sequence accomplish this? What does it show to be essential to Bedford Falls that is missing in Pottersville? And what does it thereby mean to reveal about America?
The recent critics of It’s a Wonderful Life have argued that the Pottersville sequence fails, because it does not represent the loss of anything we can regard as genuinely valuable in American life. Instead, these critics charge that the Pottersville sequence exploits naïve and sentimental conceptions of American life and character, in particular nostalgic ideas about the virtues of rural American small towns. They agree that Pottersville is meant to represent a loss of American identity, but they argue that it fails to present a vision of America that is truthful about the reality of American life. Instead, these critics claim, the film draws on and reinforces many Americans’ fundamentally false conceptions about their national character and history. On this interpretation of the film, George’s choice of Bedford Falls over Pottersville represents a rejection of modernity and a retreat into rural conservatism. Since George’s choice to affirm the existence of Bedford Falls is also a choice to affirm his own existence, it follows that we cannot take George’s decision to live seriously, and that the film as a whole is a failure.
In a 2001 article in Salon entitled “All Hail Pottersville!” Gary Kamiya introduced a set of themes that have come to define this style of criticism.2 Kamiya’s piece is heavily tongue-in-cheek, and it would be easy to dismiss it as merely satiric or cynical. But Kamiya’s arguments have been picked up by a series of later writers in a strikingly earnest tone, and his piece has done much to establish the current mood of disillusion about Capra’s film. For Kamiya, the Pottersville sequence constitutes a “glaring flaw in Capra’s great canvas.” Pottersville is meant to represent, in Kamiya’s words, “a kind of combo pack of Sodom, Gomorrah, Times Square in 1972, Tokyo’s hostess district, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast ca. 1884, and one of those demon-infested burgs dimly visible in the background of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.” According to Kamiya, viewers of It’s a Wonderful Life are meant to “shudder” at Pottersville’s colorful nightlife and to long for the simple, modest ways of good old Bedford Falls. But, Kamiya writes, “there’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!”
In Kamiya’s view, the attractions of Pottersville make George’s response to it somewhere between repugnantly prudish and unintelligible. Kamiya reminds us that George himself always longed to get out of Bedford Falls and find a little excitement. For Kamiya, the only possible explanation as to why George didn’t embrace the more exciting life of Pottersville is that he got “waylaid by a massive load of family-business guilt and a happy ending engineered by God himself.” Kamiya notes that Pottersville not only looks like a good deal more fun than Bedford Falls, it also looks a good deal more like modern America. “In the real world,” as Kamiya puts it, “Potter won.” “We all live in Pottersville now,” Kamiya declares. “Bedford Falls is gone. The plucky little Savings and Loan closed down years ago, just like in George’s nightmare.” He concludes: “To cling to dreams of a bucolic America where the little guy defeats the forces of Big Business and the policeman and the taxi driver and the druggist and the banker all sing Auld Lang Syne together is just to ask for heartbreak and confusion when you turn off the TV and open your front door.”
In the years since Kamiya’s article appeared, many other critics have offered variations on the theme that modern America simply is Pottersville, and therefore the film’s attempt to present Pottersville as any kind of loss or denial of America is wishful and illusory. David Thomson, like Kamiya, identifies the modern United States with Pottersville, and, like Kamiya, wonders whether this is really such a bad thing after all. “[S]ince 1946,” Thomson writes, “the United States has come to resemble Pottersville far more than Bedford Falls.” 3 In Thomson’s view, this is not something we should entirely regret, since “[t]he rural idyll of security and self-sufficiency didn’t work.” 4
In a 2008 New York Times piece entitled “Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life,” Wendell Jamieson goes even further than Kamiya or Thomson. Jamieson takes the step of explicitly arguing that George’s fellow citizens would actually have been better off if he had never been born.5 “Think about it,” Jamieson writes, “in one scene George helps bring manufacturing to Bedford Falls. But since the era of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ manufacturing in upstate New York has suffered terribly. On the other hand, Pottersville, with its nightclubs and gambling halls, would almost certainly be in better financial shape today.” “What a grim thought,” Jamieson concludes: “had George Bailey never been born, the people in his town might very well be better off today.”
Rich Cohen, in a 2010 Salon article called “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Most Terrifying Movie Ever,” 6 goes furthest yet. Cohen proposes to reverse the apparent logic of the movie, so that Bedford Falls is the illusion and Pottersville the reality. According to Cohen, “George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn’t know it.” Whereas Bedford Falls, according to Cohen, is “quaint and fine,” Pottersville is “vulgar and mean,” a “nighttime world of neon bars and drunks and showgirl floozies.” When Clarence took George to Pottersville, Cohen writes, “it was only then that he saw America.” Bedford Falls was never anything but a fantasy, Cohen concludes, and “Pottersville is where we live.”
The critics I’ve mentioned all understand It’s a Wonderful Life to be a representation of America, and they engage in the mode of critical conversation described above, in which we respond to a fiction film in terms of the truthfulness of its depiction of a real location. In particular, the critics take it that we, the audience, are meant to find in Pottersville the loss or absence of something important about the American way of life. But, they argue, It’s a Wonderful Life is an artistic failure, because Pottersville does not represent a genuine loss of American identity. America, in the critics’ view, just is Pottersville, and so the film’s presentation of Pottersville as lacking something essentially American is simply false. The critics suppose that the film means for George, and the audience, to prefer Bedford Falls to Pottersville, and to identify the real or essential America with Bedford Falls rather than Pottersville. But they argue that these responses rest on backward values and sentimental illusions. In explaining the difference between Bedford Falls and Pottersville, the critics tend to rely on a familiar opposition: Bedford Falls looks “bucolic,” “rural,” and “quaint,” whereas Pottersville seems modern, urban, and sophisticated. For the critics I’ve just discussed, Bedford Falls may speak to a kind of sentimental tendency that Americans have, to imagine their country as a bastion of small-town, traditional values—but the nakedly commercial Pottersville is closer to American reality.
These preoccupations on the part of the critics may reflect how the film has often been seen, especially by audiences looking to find in it a blandly heartwarming “holiday classic.” While the critics are rightly suspicious of that gauzy reputation, they in fact remain fundamentally captive to it. They do no more than take the traditional sentimental reception of the film and reverse its logic, so as to privilege the apparently more urbane Pottersville over “quaint” Bedford Falls. But in all of their concern to reverse how the film has traditionally been seen, they fail to see the film itself. Instead, they project onto the film some of our own current preoccupations about America, including the decline of rural economies and the ongoing conflict between rural and urban values. But these preoccupations may have little to do with the vision of America at the heart of the film. Instead of being open to the film’s vision of its setting, the critics have imposed their own conception of that setting onto it. When the film fails to reflect that conception, they judge it a failure. If we wish to take the film seriously as a representation of America, we need to set aside our preconceptions and be open to its distinctive conception of American life. If we do so, we may not only get a clearer view of the film; we may find our view of America itself challenged and enriched.
To understand what has gone missing in these recent critiques, it is important first to be clear about what exactly is at stake in the Pottersville sequence. There can be no question, as critics like Kamiya tend to imply, of George choosing whether he will live in Bedford Falls or Pottersville. The fundamental premise of the Pottersville sequence is that it shows what the town would be like if George had never been born—thus, George can hardly pick up and move there. What is at stake in the sequence, as I’ve suggested, is only the question of whether George should affirm or deny the life he has lived, where that can only mean his life in Bedford Falls. I suggest that we read George’s choice this way: should he have lived the life he did in fact live, have been the sort of person he has been, in the place where he has lived, or should he have lived a very different kind of life in a different kind of place—for example, a life that was more focused on the pursuit of wealth and status in a place that richly rewards such pursuits? Would it have been better for everyone, himself included, if he had lived that kind of life instead? The Pottersville sequence proposes to answer this question by showing what it would mean, for George and for the other people in his life, for him to reject the life he has lived in favor of the other life that is the object of this fantasy.
We should understand the stakes of the film’s representation of America in similar terms. Critics who see the film as presenting us with two visions of America, one corresponding to Bedford Falls and the other to Pottersville, have not truly seen the film, because there are not two such places. Pottersville simply is Bedford Falls, with a certain kind of person—the kind of person represented by George Bailey—gone out of it. The Pottersville sequence does not represent a shift in the film’s setting, as a film might switch from depicting action in one city to another city. The setting of the film in the Pottersville sequence has not shifted; rather, the film’s singular setting has itself undergone a change. Understanding the sequence requires us to see what that change consists in. In the same way, we should see Pottersville not as a different location than the America of Bedford Falls, but as the same location with something essential to its identity gone out of it. In a parallel to George’s question, we might see the film’s question about America as that of whether America should have been the kind of country it has been, or a different kind of country instead. The Pottersville sequence will then serve to remind us of certain truths about the kind of country America has been, and what it would be like for it to be that kind of country no longer.
If we remain open to the central concerns of the film rather than our own preoccupations, we see that the decisive fact about Pottersville is not its colorful nightlife, or its economic vitality, but its pervasive attitude of suspicion and hostility toward strangers. In denying or disclaiming his own existence, George has rejected his distinctive attitude of openness toward strangers and strangeness. It was this attitude that set him apart from certain other characters in the film, in particular from Potter. But as the Pottersville sequence shows, this openness to strangers was also what gave Bedford Falls its identity. It is above all this openness to the stranger that goes out of the town when we imagine it without George or anyone like him. By the same token, it is this openness toward strangers that George affirms in affirming his own existence and, correspondingly, the existence of Bedford Falls. The Pottersville sequence shows George that, whatever the disappointments of his life there, the town without his feeling for the strange and unknown is a dark and narrow place. In the same way, I take the film to propose that the distinctive character of America hangs on its openness to the stranger, and that in denying this openness, America denies itself.
To see the film anew in this way, let’s return to the scene in which George and Mary welcome Martini and his family into their new house in Bailey Park. As I mentioned above, in that scene George is embarrassed when Sam Wainwright sees him helping Martini. I take the scene to be an illustration of George’s broader disappointment with his life: he sees himself in a certain way, connected with his frustrations and disappointments. But it is also important that this way he has of seeing himself is connected with his sense of shame in the face of particular others—those whom, like Sam, he takes to be more successful than he is. In privileging these characters’ vision of him, he fails to appreciate how another group of his fellow citizens, in particular the strangers and outsiders for whom he has built Bailey Park, might see him differently. If we ask how the Pottersville sequence is to help George overcome his disappointment, then we should consider how the vision of Pottersville leads George to reconsider events like this one, and to regard them in a different light. Prior to his vision, George tends to look back on such scenes as signs of his failure—his failure to get out of Bedford Falls or become a successful businessman like Sam. If, in the aftermath of his Pottersville vision, George is to conceive of his life differently, then his new conception of it should include a new attitude toward his having helped and befriended strangers like Martini. He may need to come to see the world—and himself—more from Martini’s point of view, and less from Wainwright’s.
When we revisit the Pottersville sequence from this point of view, we notice that Martini is conspicuously absent in it, as if Pottersville is haunted by the absence of this character in a way that links it to the absence of George himself. George was drinking in Martini’s bar just before he went out onto the bridge. After Clarence appears and tells George that he is an angel, George wonders aloud “what Martini put in those drinks,” as if Martini himself is somehow responsible for George’s vision. George and Clarence go to Martini’s bar, but it is now Nick’s. When George asks for Martini, Nick appears never to have heard of him. Later, when George is turned away from his mother’s house, he decides that he will be able to escape the “spell” he is under if he can find the last man he talked to “before all this stuff started happening” to him: Martini. In a reversal of the earlier scene with Sam Wainwright, George goes to Martini’s house in Bailey Park, this time so that Martini can help him. But Bailey Park is not there, and Martini cannot be found. Thus in trying to determine what is missing in Pottersville, we should begin with the invisibility of Martini, the other person who, aside from George, is noted to be missing there. For all of its seeming urbanity and sophistication, Pottersville may not in fact be any place for a stranger like Martini.
In Pottersville, George himself is put into the position of a stranger, and he sees the world through a stranger’s eyes. As Clarence tells George, “you’re nobody, you have no identity…you have no papers, no cards, no driver’s license.” Without papers or identity cards, he becomes like an immigrant, one who lacks proof of his identity and tangible signs of belonging. Of course, George is a peculiar sort of stranger—one who knows everyone he sees, though none of them knows him. But that may simply be a way of dramatizing the essential condition of every stranger, who must claim a place for himself in a society that may feel it is already complete without him. Beneath its glitzy surface, the most striking fact about Pottersville is that all of George’s many attempts to establish familiarity and claim recognition from the people there are met not simply with confusion or puzzlement, as would be natural, but with fear and hostility. When George claims to know Nick the bartender, Nick angrily throws him out of the bar. When George seeks help from Ernie the taxi driver, Ernie declares him insane. When George greets Bert the policeman, Bert proposes to take him “in to a doctor” for psychiatric treatment. George’s mother tells him that she doesn’t “take in strangers” unless they are sent “by someone I know”—that is to say, she does not, strictly speaking, take in strangers at all.
In the whole course of the Pottersville sequence, not one person in the town expresses any sympathy or even curiosity about George’s situation, or makes any attempt to help or understand him. It never seems to occur to any of them that, since this man is so insistently demanding recognition from them, perhaps they owe him some recognition in return. Instead, they react with fear and anger to his claims of intimacy, and to his need, as if intimacy and need were themselves something alien, frightening, and offensive. There is a kind of knowingness that characterizes the citizens of Pottersville, as if they take themselves to already know everyone and everything that could be worth knowing. Indeed, it would seem that in Pottersville, whom you know matters a great deal—as in Violet’s protest to the police outside the dance club, “I know every big shot in this town…I know Potter!” If we compare the average citizen of Pottersville and his attitude toward strangers with George and his attitude, the contrast is stark. George was a benefactor and a friend to Martini, as mentioned above. He jumped in the river to save Clarence—a stranger if there ever was one. And in Pottersville, George persists in believing that the people he sees around him are his friends and intimates, despite their utter rejection of him, as if he cannot quite believe that they are really strangers.
This openness toward the strange—manifested in openness to strangers, immigrants, and the foreign—defines what is present in George and lacking in Pottersville. Given this interpretation of the sequence and its themes, we can see how irrelevant is the critics’ fascination with Pottersville’s nightlife and its economic outlook. It should also be clear that the question of one’s attitude toward what is strange has broader dimensions in this film, dimensions that go beyond the question of whether a particular person happens to be a stranger. George’s youthful ambitions—first to travel and explore, and later to build the buildings of the future—can also be regarded as further manifestations of his tendency to reach out toward what is unfamiliar or unknown. Perhaps George’s most fundamental formulation of his distinctive attitude comes in his rebuke to Potter: Potter spins his “little webs” and thinks “the whole world revolves” around him; but “in the whole vast configuration of things,” he is “nothing but a scurvy little spider.” The contrast George draws here between “little webs” and “the whole world” speaks to his determination to go beyond the familiar and to remain open to what is unknown in the largest sense. It is this openness to the unknown that the film argues is constitutive of America, and that the film sees as a fragile but essential achievement, one that America will lose unless Americans come to see how the identity of their country would be lost without it.
If this interpretation points us in the right direction for understanding the Pottersville sequence, how does it help us to make sense of George’s wish to live again? Critics in the tradition of Kamiya find, in George’s change of heart, nothing but a “massive load of family-business guilt and a happy ending engineered by God himself.” But seeing the film in the way I have been proposing here, we can understand how George found, in his vision of Pottersville, a vindication of the kind of life he has lived and the place he has helped to create. George’s question was whether, all things considered, he ought not have lived a different kind of life—one more focused on money and status, and less burdened by a wider vision of the world and the task of making a place for that vision. In Pottersville, George finds a place that is blind to that wider vision, as typified in its attitude toward strangers. It is nothing but a “little web,” a small and lonely place. In contrast, whatever disappointments George has suffered, he has lived with a view to “the whole vast configuration of things” and struggled to build a place that can remain open to that vastness.
Critics like Thomson fault the film’s depiction of America, on the grounds that it exalts a “rural idyll of security and self-sufficiency” that “didn’t work.” But if the reading I have been proposing here is along the right lines, then this criticism misses a supreme irony at the center of the film: Pottersville, for all its seeming urbanity and sophistication, is actually a less imaginatively open and risky place than Bedford Falls. If Bedford Falls represents something about the history and identity of America, it is not America’s supposed history of quaint small towns, but rather America’s openness to the strange and the stranger. It is this aspect of American life, the film suggests, that risks being lost in Pottersville. If, as Kamiya, Thomson, Jamieson, and Cohen all suggest, Pottersville is closer to the reality of American life today, that is not because America has become more urban, or because American manufacturing has declined, but because America has become an essentially smaller place, at once more knowing and less curious, less open to the unknown.
While the film is concerned with the openness of America to strangers in the form of immigrants like Martini, it also places these attitudes toward immigrants within a broader context of attitudes toward what is unfamiliar and larger than ourselves generally. In the character of George Bailey, openness to strangers is part of a broader sensibility of curiosity and openness that affects everything from how we treat our fellow citizens to how we see our place in the universe. Focusing on the film’s concern with the fate of strangers gives us a different way of thinking about what it finds to be distinctively American, and what it fears America is in danger of losing. This vision of America overlaps with the traditional conception of America as a “nation of immigrants,” but it is more radical than that: it finds in the American character not only a kind of political openness to strangers, but also a kind of metaphysical openness, toward what is unfamiliar and unknown as such.
 In American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1996), Ray Carney argues that Capra’s films, including It’s a Wonderful Life, are centrally concerned with the possibility of self-expression. As I see It’s a Wonderful Life, this approach falls short in two key respects. First, I take It’s a Wonderful Life to be concerned not so much with the question of how to express a self that already exists, as with the question of what it would be to realize or constitute one’s self. What is at stake in the film is the very existence of George Bailey and of Bedford Falls, and the aim of the film is to bring more clearly into view what this man and this place truly are. Second, I see the film as presenting the self and its contexts of expression in a certain kind of reciprocal relation: just as George’s life was shaped by his living in (and never leaving) Bedford Falls, so the identity of Bedford Falls turns out to be bound up with George’s existence. Thus the distinction between a self and its expression that Carney’s approach implies strikes me as misleading. I take it to be a central theme of Capra’s films, from It Happened One Night to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, and It’s a Wonderful Life, that the self needs to find its proper mode of expression, and thus to be seen, by itself and others, for what it is; again and again in these films, the stifling of self-expression leads to the betrayal and corruption of character.
 www.salon.com/2001/12/22/pottersville (accessed 6/11/12)
 www.salon.com/2001/12/22/pottersville (accessed 6/11/12)
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 New York Times, December 19, 2008, C1
 http://www.salon.com/2010/12/25/its_wonderful_life_terrifying_movie_ever (accessed 6/12/11)