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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Scrooge vs. Potter

What is there about Christmas that spurs people with creative minds to spin yarns about mean, old, miserly men?

A quick glance at my list of classic Christmas movies from last year reveals a consistent running theme among all of them: a cynical and/or depressed person is made to see the error of his or her ways and to embrace the Christmas spirit. Sometimes it is a young girl, as exemplified by Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street or Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis. In the case of White Christmas it is a nice old codger (Dean Jagger) who feels unappreciated in his twilight years. But far and away the convert of choice in Christmas stories is that enduring creation of Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge.

There have been a gazillion adaptations of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for film and television. In addition to the definitive performance by Alistair Sim, every actor from Albert Finney to George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart has had a crack at him. Animated versions have featured such virtual “actors” as Mickey Mouse and Mr. Magoo. Then there are the other variations that have for one reason or another tampered with the time setting or Scrooge’s gender, allowing actors like Bill Murray and Vanessa Williams to play the character.

But none of the variations are as satisfying as the original, which suggests that Scrooge is peculiarly a character of Victorian England and that is the lens through which he is best seen and appreciated. And what is the particular appeal of this mean, old curmudgeon at Christmas time? As much as our popular culture likes to get away from the religious roots of the holiday and instead focus on its secular accoutrements (Santa, reindeer, the tree, etc.), the Scrooge story, without being overtly about religion, exemplifies what Christmas (and indeed every Christian holiday) is about: redemption. Scrooge is spiritually lost, but through supernatural intervention he is saved.

But does Scrooge have no uniquely American equivalent? He does, and it would be Mr. Henry F. Potter of It’s a Wonderful Life. Without a doubt, the classic Frank Capra film is the American Christmas Carol. The main difference between Potter and Scrooge, of course, is that Scrooge is redeemed, and Potter isn’t. By the film’s joyously happy ending, Potter is all but forgotten, still sitting alone in his big old house counting his money. What makes Capra’s version so typically American is that it is not the old curmudgeon who gets saved but instead a nice young man, who has done nothing but good and has lived the titular wonderful life. George Bailey would more or less be the Bob Cratchit character in A Christmas Carol. While Cratchit needed no saving in Dickens’s story, in Capra’s he does, and he is the one who receives supernatural help to overcome his disillusionment. Potter, the American Scrooge, is beyond redemption.

Like the westerns that figured so prominently in American entertainment in the mid-20th century, It’s a Wonderful Life is mythic. It celebrates small-town life and simple American decency, at precisely the moment when these qualities were about to become once and for all mere fodder for nostalgia. The 1946 film extols Bedford Falls as a friendly small town, just as Americans would migrate en masse to the suburbs. It lavishes praise on the family, just as the divorce rate would start its climb to the 50-percent mark. In the aftermath of World War II, it celebrates patriotism, just as the country was about to spend nearly a half-century questioning the government’s motives. It lauds decent George Bailey who makes a career of lending money so people can buy their own homes but who can’t accumulate any prosperity for himself, just as the post-war economic boom would make upward mobility and consumerism the core values for most people. Ironically, the character that most people would seek to emulate in the latter 20th century would be Sam Wainwright, who got in “on the ground floor,” made a pile of money (while, incidentally, creating jobs for people in Bedford Falls and enabling himself to bail out George Bailey), and drove a fancy car. It is a further irony that the scene where the townspeople stage a run on Bailey’s savings and loan would be echoed in the 1980s, but at that point the people running the S&Ls would be seen as the bad guys who stole people’s money rather than idealistic, if naïve, do-gooders. (Nor has time been kind to the film’s notion that, if George had never been born, his wife would have wound up an Old Maid, a fate depicted as slightly worse than contracting the Ebola virus.)

Notwithstanding the fact that it is easy to take potshots at the film from the vantage point of a half-century of history, it is precisely the mythos evoked by It’s a Wonderful Life that makes the movie so powerful. It speaks to our better natures, as exemplified by George Bailey. It doesn’t preach an end-of-life change of heart, as does the Scrooge story. The Potter character suggests that there comes a point when it is too late for redemption. Rather, the movie suggests, you are redeemed by the good works and good will of an entire lifetime and you should never lose faith.

If comfort and inspiration are to be found in a popular entertainment at Christmastime, the message of It’s a Wonderful Life definitely provides them.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us every one.

-S.L., 20 December 2001

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