It’s funny how the rapidly changing economic scene changes our view on even the most basic things. A few years ago, it would be hard to imagine anyone seeing Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as anything more than a feelgood holiday classic movie. It’s always been a favorite of mine to watch this time of year.

Here’s a recessionary take on current lending as it relates to Potter v. Bailey.

New York Times: Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

And what about that banking issue? When he returns to the “real” Bedford Falls, George is saved by his friends, who open their wallets to cover an $8,000 shortfall at his savings and loan brought about when the evil Mr. Potter snatched a deposit mislaid by George’s idiot uncle, Billy (Thomas Mitchell).

But isn’t George still liable for the missing funds, even if he has made restitution? I mean, if someone robs a bank, and then gives the money back, that person still robbed the bank, right?

I checked my theory with Frank J. Clark, the district attorney for Erie County upstate, where, as far as I can tell, the fictional Bedford Falls is set. He thought it over, and then agreed: George would still face prosecution and possible prison time.

“In terms of the theft, sure, you take the money and put it back, you still committed the larceny,” he said. “By giving the money back, you have mitigated in large measure what the sentence might be, but you are still technically guilty of the offense.”

Conde Nast Portfolio: George Bailey, Subprime Lender

We’re not saying that Bailey versus Potter is a perfect allegory for today’s credit crunch; Angelo Mozilo and his predatory buddies are no latter-day George Baileys, “starry-eyed dreamers” giving up their own riches to give the Ernie Bishops of the world a chance at the American Dream.

And the majority of the bad loans that have crippled our credit markets were not made to folks like Ernie Bishop, working tirelessly to put a roof over their families’ heads. A fair few of those loans enabled bad real estate investments by people who had no business buying or building homes as big as they did.

But consider this: Perhaps Mr. Potter wasn’t just a heartless Scrooge. Perhaps Mr. Potter, in the absence of sufficient regulatory oversight, was the one voice of sanity keeping the good people of Bedford Falls from over-leveraging themselves.

Salon: All hail Pottersville! This article is from 2001, also written during a recession.

But even a master sometimes flubs a brushstroke, and there is a glaring flaw in Capra’s great canvas.

I refer, of course, to Pottersville.

In Capra’s Tale of Two Cities, Pottersville is the Bad Place. It’s the demonic foil to Bedford Falls, the sweet, Norman Rockwell-like town in which George grows up. Named after the evil Mr. Potter, Pottersville is the setting for George’s brief, nightmarish trip through a world in which he never existed. In that alternative universe, Potter has triumphed, and we are intended to shudder in horror at the sinful city he has spawned — 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.

There’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!

Clearly, we see things the way we want to see them and right now, it’s probably not helping too much. Conservative lending practices continue to damage the very collateral they are intended to protect. Consumers won’t buy because they are worried about their jobs, which in turn causes more businesses to fail.

The solution?

Just watch the movie as intended and have a wonderful life holiday.

I’ll be back next week.


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8 Responses to “[Potterville Rocks!] Lessons Learned From “It’s A Wonderful Life””

  1. ARDELL says:

    We need a contemporary remake for next Christmas.

    Enjoy your time off! A Very Happy New Year to you, Jonathan.

  2. Jonathan J. Miller says:

    You too Ardell! I’d prefer to be George Bailey in the remake.

  3. JB in NYC says:

    Please, no remake of this one!

    Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Yes! It’s a Wonderful Life – No!

    The question is: Where are we going to end up?

    Bedford Falls? Pottersville? Pottersville that doesn’t rock?

  4. Edd Gillespie says:

    Merry Christmas and thanks for the consistently thought provoking and informative posts. As for where we are going, the economy everywhere else will be most certainly be driven by greed and self-indulgence while that in our town is characterized by self-sacrificing benevolence. When whomever it is that defines the indicia of a healthy economy modifies consumer confidence to include rational savings we may be able to have an adult conversation about where we are going.

  5. Jonathan J. Miller says:

    Thx Edd. Your significant contributions here are much appreciated. We have a long way to go, an I look forward to a continued dialog.

  6. Andrew says:

    I like the titel of the film .though it mat be a good film, i have no time now . so i think about it later.

  7. Bill Giblin says:

    Perhaps when,as did George Bailey,we put families first more so than corporate profits we’ll see the better aspects of Bedford Falls. Of course, we’d all have to do our part, but it’s been done before.

  8. Edd Gillespie says:

    I think you are absolutely correct Bill, and as you allude, the change will come from us not from the leadership of the country. It is certainly time we realized that the pursuit of money has not produced much ion the way of satisfaction. It has only changed the problems we try to solve. Are any of you thinking about what we could do within our profession, which mostly serves the corporate community, to turn this thing back toward traditional values?