Updated: Feb 4
What this classic holiday movie has to teach us about the importance of investing in better banking practices.
I’ve been watching the movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” every year around Christmas with my family for as long as I can remember. If you’ve never seen it, you absolutely should; it’s a classic Jimmy Stewart feel-good Christmas movie that’s perfectly appropriate for any cozy holiday evening. When my family and I went to see it this Christmas Eve at the local discount theatre, I had to remind myself to be embarrassed after enthusiastically quoting lines along with the characters.
It’s set right after the end of WWII on Christmas Eve in 1945, in the town of Bedford Falls, New York, and the movie opens on images of the town as we hear the prayers of the people in it, all asking God to take care of a man named George Bailey. We then are shown God and his angels discussing how this man is contemplating suicide, and assign a rookie angel, Clarence, to convince George of the preciousness of his life. Before leaving for earth, however, Clarence must learn more about George Bailey, and the audience is taken along as God shows Clarence the pivotal moments in George’s life.
Although the movie has many precious family and romantic moments as George grows up, helps his family and neighbors, and gets married and has children, they’re not what stand out to me most as I watch the film now. Rather, it’s the influence of George’s father, Peter Bailey, the executive secretary at the Bailey Building and Loan, a struggling but essential institution in a town where the antagonist big-businessman, Henry Potter, owns almost everything and gives nothing back. Although George understands the importance of his father’s business and is even apt at it, it’s not his dream to operate what he refers to as a “cheap penny-ante Building and Loan.” George talks about exploring the world and being an architect, doing big things in big places, and when he ultimately gets involved in the business instead of going to college and traveling, he becomes embittered, angry at the tiny town and tiny business he’s stuck in.
But ultimately, George decides to help the people in his hometown rather than live out his dreams. And it’s the scene in which he makes this decision that stands out to me most as someone who talks about the importance of lending to low- and moderate-income communities.
In that scene, George’s father has recently died, and Potter is trying to convince the board of the Bailey Building and Loan to close the business, which is reasonable considering that George’s father was essentially the institution itself. Potter claims that Peter Bailey’s relationships with his lendees were unprofessional, and that lending instead of encouraging people to save up to buy a home resulted in “a discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.” Impassioned and angry at this, George responds;
“You- you said that they… What’d you say just a minute ago? They- they had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken-down that they… Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”
As God shows Clarence more of George’s life, we see him grow the business and build a nearby field into a neighborhood of new homes called Bailey Park, which infuriates Potter because many of the people who own homes there used to pay rent in Potter’s slums. Through community lending and good will, George makes positive impact after positive impact on the town and its people.
George has never earned much money for his work, and when, on Christmas Eve, his alcoholic uncle and employee loses $8,000 dollars of the bank’s money, George is threatened with scandal and jail time. This is ultimately what drives George to consider suicide, and what leads to Clarence showing him that life is worth living.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably recognize the trope: Someone says they wish they’d never been born, and an otherworldly being shows the lamented what life would be like without them in the world. Clarence and George walk through this world together, and as we see how terrible the town would be without George having been born.
Everyone in the town seems broken down, and many of the friends we saw George grow up around are impoverished and isolated, unable to form any kind of community—a stark contrast to the Bedford Falls George has known. For me, the moment when George’s impact, and impact of fair lending in a small town, is most apparent, is when we walk down the main street and only see clubs and bars, filled with people even on Christmas Eve. George becomes more and more distraught, eventually begging God to grant him existence again.
Although the movie takes places almost 75 years ago, its message is inexorable and unforgettable. In the last scene, George’s friends and family joyously pile into his home to give what they can to make up the $8,000 that was lost, help they were able and glad to offer because of the lives they built with good community and loans from the Bailey Building and Loan.
Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we feel the impact of redistribution, which to many is the real spirit of Christmas. When we give to others, it makes our communities, and therefore our lives, fuller and richer. Even if it doesn’t come back to you so explicitly, if comes back to you in the positivity and happiness that everyone feels in a community where people are given the chance to live full and dignified lives. As this movie shows, small community banks are the touchstones in our community where people can go to receive the kind of loans that make low- and middle-income neighborhoods flourish. Community banking is still such an important part of society today because people need this chance more than ever. This lesson of giving from “It’s A Wonderful Life” reflects the true Christmas spirit, and one that the birthday boy himself would truly believe in.
If you're making it your goal to invest inyour community in the upcoming year, consider changing where you bank to a local better banking option, and please reach out to us if you're confused about how to do this or what bank to move your money to. Addtionally, consider sharing our articles on social media to let your friends know about the importance of community banking.