In 1988, the horror and SF writer Bradley Denton published a terrific novella, “The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians”, about Lenny Bruce in Purgatory. He arrives at the titular home, bereft of all memory of his life on earth. All he knows is that he’s Jewish, he’s funny, and he’s messed up very, very badly, as the the torments of an Old Testament God are going to be unleashed on him until he fits in, learns to respect his betters and stop making a scene: beatings, starvation, shock treatment for mouthing off, the miraculous transformation of Jujubes into cockroaches, a stint in the pillory where a literal pack of Puritans pelt him with rotten produce, a physical inability to say the word “cocksucker”. And every night for eternity, as the sparrow sharpening its beak grinds down the mountain, he and the other residents of the Home, those who “spent their lives trying to gain earthly rewards through the practice of so-called humor”, get to sit down and watch a movie for the benefit of their character: It’s a Wonderful Life.
For those few of you who have never encountered the movie (or any of its thousand imitators), it’s the story of George Bailey, a small-town banker in Bedford Falls, New York. Bailey dreamed of seeing the world, but his father’s death (and his brother’s departure for college and marriage to a wealthy woman whose family business he joins) means that he puts his life on hold to run Baily Brothers Building and Loan. The pause lasts his whole life. When George’s doddering uncle accidentally hands the savings and loan’s cash holdings to the richest, wickedest man in town, Henry Potter, things look grim. Fearing his arrest and the savings and loan’s ruin, George contemplates suicide, only to be rescued by trainee angel Clarence Odbody, who shows him the world as it would have been without George: his brother the war hero, dead in a childhood accident and the men he saved along with him; his wife a spinster and his friends Bert and Ernie lowlifes; Bedford Falls the sleazy red-light district of Pottersville where the bars have neon signs and play jitterbug music. George pleads with Clarence to take him back; the people of Bedford Falls make Bailey Brothers whole; Clarence gets his wings.
There are a lot of people who seem to agree with Denton’s Lenny Bruce; Pauline Kael, for one, called it “slurpy”, but like a lot of viewers today, possibly most, what strikes me about the movie is its core weariness. It’s a pretty forthright condemnation of the excesses of capitalism; Potter was played by Lionel Barrymore of the great Hollywood acting family and was well-known at the time for his radio role as Ebenezer Scrooge on CBS. More than that, though, It’s a Wonderful Life is a black comedy about realizing that you’re never going to get out of your crummy little town, a middle-aged movie about a middle-aged man coming to term with his constraints, even if no one would mistake Capra for a dangerous radical.
But of course, someone would; Ward Bond, the character actor who played Bert and a John Wayne crony who served with Wayne on the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, warned Capra away from casting the great Anne Revere, an avowed leftist and member of the Communist Party, as George’s mother. Capra, who had served in the Army as an artillery training officer in World War I and making incredibly well-crafted propaganda for George Marshall during World War II, took exception and told Bond to tell Wayne that he wouldn’t let a draft-dodger dictate his choices. Wayne took it as well as you’d expect.
Others agreed with Wayne and Bond that something was fishy about that Capra. Hoover’s FBI wondered if It’s a Wonderful Life was Communist propaganda (“a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers”) spurred on by Ayn Rand. To this very day, Hoover and Rand’s spiritual successors hate the movie. It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t become a holiday classic because of its rejection of untrammeled capitalism, however, but because of a different sort of filthy lucre.
The IP licensing company National Telefilm screwed up. They failed to renew copyright on the movie in 1974, meaning that for almost two decades local broadcasters could show it for free. (Philip Van Doren Stern had written the short story, “The Greatest Gift”, on which the movie was based; unable to find a publisher he had sent two hundred copies as Christmas cards in 1943. One made its way to RKO producer David Hempstead, the future screenwriter of Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water and the rest was history. Stern later published the story in Good Housekeeping, and his copyright on the story was used to leverage It’s a Wonderful Life back out of the public domain in the 1990s. A wintertime setting? A Christmas tree? Big names—Jimmy Stewart! Donna Reed! Frank Capra! No royalties? A Christmas miracle indeed. And so twenty years of repetition made It’s a Wonderful Life as American as Santa Claus and apple pie. (Just once, Denton’s Leonard thinks , I wish they'd let George croak himself.)
At the end of Denton’s story, while Lenny Bruce willingly stays in “the place where Jewish boys who got tattoos, slept with shiksas, and told dirty toilet jokes went” (“Happiness and contentment are fine things for some, but for me they're just boring”), his partner in crime in the afterlife, John Belushi, knuckles under, repents, and ascends to Heaven. “All I ever wanted was to be happy,” he tells Bruce. “The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians” was nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula, but was defeated by Connie Willis’ (excellent, if slurpy) love letter to dogs and loss, “Last of the Winnebagos”. It’s a Wonderful Life failed at the box office, and marked the effective end of Capra’s career as a top-tier filmmaker. Capra blamed changing social mores (“the hedonists, the homosexuals, the haemophiliac bleeding hearts, the God-haters, the quick-buck artists who substituted shock for talent”; Lenny Bruce would feel at home!), but post-war America, even if it had a place for decency, didn’t have a place for the moral Capra was presenting: it could always be worse, and sometimes that’s good enough. Attaboy, Clarence.