I enjoy most holiday movies, they are festive, overly dramatic, they make me nostalgic, and can generally be a pretty good time. However, another thing I enjoy, is taking my childhood memories and literature/movies from my childhood and re-interpreting them with the knowledge I have as an adult. Would I say I take a sick satisfaction in explaining logical fallacies, plot holes, and economic impossibilities to my friends, ruining their childhood memories? Read on if you want to hear my economic analysis of two classic Christmas movies.
First up on the chopping block is Frank Capra’s famous Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. This American classic details the life of one George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, and his seemingly ideal childhood and adolescence in the small town of Bedford Falls (largely based on Seneca Falls, NY home to the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention). Bailey is an aspiring adventurer with grand plans to leave his small town in the dust and explore the world. However, on the eve of departure, his father dies of a heart attack, forcing George to take a role on the executive of his family’s savings and loan.
Ah yes, the good ‘ole Bailey Building and Loan, an institution which worked George’s father to death and for the rest of the movie prevents George Bailey from ever realizing his travel dreams. I won’t go into all the details because if you haven’t seen the movie you should, but I will spoil the ending. George Bailey is a nice guy who means well and thus is always extending the lines of credit to those who borrow money from him. As a result his S&L can never stay on top of its bills and is almost taken over by the bad guy of the movie, the local rich banker, Mr. Potter, who is forever trying to take over George Bailey’s business. After an accidental loss of thousands of dollars, it appears as though he will lose everything, but in the end the community bands together to save him and his family.
It’ a happy ending, a “Greatest Generation” puff piece covering the Depression, WWII and the ideas of the American Dream, but the ending can only be viewed in a positive light if one does not imagine the future of the Bailey Building and Loan. Building and loans, commonly known as savings and loan organizations (also known as S&Ls or “thrifts”) are bank like organizations with the majority of their income coming from mortgage lending. Like credit unions, members have certain rights within the organization and traditionally they are less speculative given high investment in real estate. S&Ls used to be much more common in the US, but in the 1980s and ’90s, following deregulation of the industry, these thrifts began making more speculative investments in both real estate and investments such as junk bonds peddled by the likes of Michael Milken. Anyway to make a long story short, bad investments were made and hundreds of thrifts around the country were shuttered. It is certainly not definite that the Bailey’s thrift closed in the latter half of the last century, but it is a great possibility that it did fail, which sort of puts a damper on the happy ending, especially since the failure may likely have been due to greed, which George Bailey abhors.
The next movie I will analyze is the Will Ferrell comedy Elf. I spent many long years of my childhood wondering what exactly this movie was about, not seeing the film until I was about 15, so my view may be automatically more jaded because it was never a childhood classic for me. Aside from the obvious improbabilities, I don’t have many issues with Elf. I enjoy the comedy of Will Ferrell and appreciate his comedy and the serious issues of seasonal employment and familial identity issues. However, I do take issue with the choice to make Buddy’s father, the supposedly evil and unfeeling corporate presence, a PUBLISHING executive. It’s a Wonderful Life uses the classic banker bad guy, I could even see a lawyer or principal as an antagonist, holiday movies are about the cliche. Even in 2003 the publishing industry was not the power house it once was. It is not the most lucrative career, nor is it considered particularly corporate or greedy. Perhaps this concern is unfounded and picky, but I think it is valid
Thank you for reading my criticisms of these two holiday movies, please feel free to add your own analyses and criticisms in the comments!
Good article, Nathaniel. However, I have to say that your critiques, especially regarding It’s A Wonderful Life because I have much more attachment to that film than Elf, are not terribly childhood destroying. They need a little bit more exploring.
For example, it’s sad that the Building and Loan probably no longer exists, but let’s look more at the consequences of that. As a result of the closure of the good ole Building and Loan, the good folks of Bedford Falls are probably now at the mercy of whatever greedy, evil banker replaced Mr. Potter, curse his name, after his death, which occurred probably a short time after the action of the film takes place. However, in 2014, it is most likely that Bedford Falls’ local bank was closed or bought up by some big time, incompetent, unhelpful, uncooperative, national bank, such as Wells Fargo. Thus, the folks of Bedford Falls are at the mercy of a modern banking system that seeks to run its branches like retail stores, hiring managers who have insufficient knowledge and are at the mercy of centralized legal departments that ignore state law and seek instead to enforce their own unreasonable or impossible standards on customers. That is really scary and childhood memory ruining.