Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Black Folks in Bedford Falls

The literature of film.  One of the elements I love about that is the details that can be present or missing in a shot or scene.  Those details can be subtle.  They can be props or people, but they will tell you something about characters, places and the director's ultimate vision.  I love what Frank Capra visually tells us about racial tolerance in his Christmastime classic, It's A Wonderful Life.
I don't have to tell you the plot.  I didn't even have to tell you the title.  I could've written "Capra's classic with Zuzu's petals" and you would've known immediately what movie and who starred in it.  I am so proud that my babyboomer generation of classic film lovers grew up to hold this movie in such a fond embrace that it was rescued from public domain airings.  Millions of us grew us seeing grainy, terribly edited prints of this film on local TV during summer vacations from school.  Capra's It's A Wonderful Life was treated like a motherless child.  Maybe it wasn't a hit when originally released but we saw something very special in the story of George and Mary Bailey.  It's a wonderful thing that It's A Wonderful Life has been restored and remastered.  Capra touches on something we all wonder when we get older and have known heartbreak and disappointment -- have we made a difference in our little world?  Are we significant?  Have our sacrifices for family, friends and community been noticed?  There's a little George Bailey in all of us.
I've been a film buff ever since I was a kid.  One of the reasons why I was driven to be movie critic on local and network television is because black people were excluded from that job when I was growing up.  Did other viewers notice there were no black movie critics on the network morning news shows like my family and I did?  We were not seen reviewing movies or hosting movies.  We were not seen interviewing classic film stars like Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Dinah Shore did on their shows.  Did anyone notice that like my family and I did?  You watch the evening news on the three senior networks during the week.  In the early 1980s, Max Robinson was the first African American anchor of the evening news.  He co-anchored ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.  Robinson died in 1988.  No black journalist since Robinson has anchored the network evening news on any of the three senior networks.  Did anyone notice we were missing from that field?  Mark, a weekend host on WABC news talk radio in New York City, wrote on Facebook a couple of Christmas seasons ago that he'd rather live in Pottersville instead of Bedford Falls because Pottersville was "more fun."  Did Mark ever notice that no black people are seen in Pottersville?  There's cheap liquor and babes to match.  But no black people.
We do see black people in Bedford Falls.  First, we see Annie (actress Lillian Randolph) who works in the warm, comfortable Bailey home.  Like Nora and Ito in Auntie Mame, she's a domestic staffer who's become a friend of the family.  Look at how Harry Bailey, George's brother, lovingly teases her.  Notice how she's free to speak her mind in the household.  Compare that to the maids in 2011's The Help.
Then comes my favorite brief moment of racial diversity from Capra.  George goes with his brother to the Bedford Falls High School graduation dance.  This is where he will see the grown and absolutely lovely Mary Hatch, played to perfection by Donna Reed.  Twenty minutes into the film, at the dance, Mary's brother wants George to say something to Mary.  George hasn't seen her in years.  Capra shows her to us in a valentine of a close-up.  It's love at first sight for George and the audience.
Mary is being chatted up by one of the class dorks when she sees George.  Look behind Mary as a very pleased George Bailey gazes at her pretty face and remarks "Well, well, well."  There's a black couple behind Mary as the dork continues with "Now to get back to my story, see" and George whisks the future Mary Bailey away to dance to "Buffalo Gal."  In that romantic frame, we see that Bedford Falls is integrated.  The world of George and Mary as a married couple will be integrated.
Later, George has fallen very much in love with Mary but he's conflicted.  He doesn't want to be pinned down in Bedford Falls the way he felt his father was.  George is a young man who wants to spread his wings and see the world.  Before going to Mary's home, he takes a walk on the main street in Bedford Falls.  We see that it's a safe environment with wholesome entertainment and friendly people.
He's spotted by Violet, the innocent town flirt who's frustrating a couple of Bedford Falls wolves on the make.  She's had a crush on "Georgie Porgie" ever since they were youngsters.
As Violet pitches a flirt at George, he playfully leads her on with the suggestion that they be adventurous and "climb Mount Bedford."  Violet is not the woodsy type.  When George suggests they could "take off our shoes and walk through the grass," she's totally outdone.

Locals gather to listen and laugh as George teases Violet.  Notice that, right as she tells him off, there's black couple out on the town strolling behind George and joining in the laughter.  Just like the scene at the high school dance, those black people are not in the picture for no reason.  They are part of Capra's vision.  He's giving you non-verbal information.  He does that with set decoration too.  George's late father, Peter Bailey, cared about the people of Bedford Falls.  When he confronts Mr. Potter, "the richest and meanest man in the county," he stresses that "times are hard, people are out of work."  Potter barks back, "...then foreclose!"  I bet this 1946 movie didn't feel so old when many Americans watched it last December. Not with the Recession of 2011.  Peter Bailey works to help people get their own homes.  He's the one who tells us that Potter is "sick in his mind.  Sick in his soul."  When Mr. Bailey talks to George at the family table before George heads off to the graduation dance, notice what's behind him on the wall.  Framed butterflies on display.  A wall decoration but, in a way, it's like Peter Bailey.  His wings were pinned down by trying to be of service to Bedford Falls, George feels.  This begins a wings motif that will be carried on by Clarence the Angel, the heavenly helper, determined to earn his celestial wings by saving the suicidal George when George is a middle-aged family man in deep debt.  Notice that George has hung his late father's framed butterflies in his house.  Like father, like son.
Capra frames James Stewart's George Bailey with images of George's inspirational, loving father and images of American independence.
Look at how he frames Lionel Barrymore as Potter.  Stern, intimidating, nothing decorative on the walls.  A dark bust of the power-hungry emperor, Napolean Bonaparte.  That tells you something about Potter.
Take another look at how Capra fills a shot with George.  A framed portrait of President Abraham Lincoln at George's shoulder level.  Photos of loved ones underneath that -- Mary, his brother, and Uncle Billy.
Curtains, pillows, the look of a cozy workspace.  This is all Frank Capra's literature of film.  Bedford Falls is a welcoming place.  It honors one of its own, a war hero.
Pottersville is not a welcoming place.  It's negative.  No dogs allowed.  No loitering.  No trespassing.
And no black people.  In Pottersville, there's no Annie working in the Bailey home.  There's no black couple at a Pottersville High School graduation dance.  There's no black couple strolling on the main street in Pottersville.  When George Bailey and Clarence the Angel go to Nick's, the dive bar, there is one black person.  A Fats Waller-type piano man is banging out music there when George and Clarence enter.  They'll get physically get thrown out of the dive joint.  But Nick's is not in Pottersville.  It's in Potters Field, known as the slum section of town.  Minorities are seen in the slum section.
As far as Pottersville being "more fun" than Bedford Falls...in the days of the Hollywood Production Code, those establishments were dark symbols of what might have been had George Bailey never existed.  The surplus of bars, the burlesque joints, the dance halls with the hostesses, the boxing matches and the pawn shops are symbols of corruption and moral decay.  Those places are breeding grounds for vice --
drunkenness, lust, greed, theft, dishonest cops, physical violence, prostitution...and racism.  This is not a safe environment with wholesome entertainment and friendly folks.  Remember how quickly Bert the cop pulls out his gun and opens fire in Pottersville?
Pottersville is a seedy, mean, racist little town on the East Coast.  Capra tells you all this by what you see...and by what you don't see.  You must be sharp enough to notice.  During the famous happy ending in George & Mary Bailey's house,  look at the diversity in their living room.  Bedford Falls friends and neighbors, black and white, gather to help George out of his economic and spiritual crisis.
When George and the grown up Mary see each other for the first time and dance early in the film, there's racial diversity in their frame.  That diversity is repeated at the joyful end in their living room.  The good will that George Bailey put out in the world for years was noticed.  Friends prayed for his welfare and those prayers were heard.  Clarence the Angel will lead George Bailey to a spiritual rebirth.  Clarence will finally get his wings.
A heavenly vision of how dark Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future could have been had George never existed turned a light back on in his troubled soul.
George gets wings too.  He's lifted out of his suicidal depression and financial crisis.  He no longer feels pinned down by Bedford Falls -- like the butterflies behind him in his late dad's wall decorations.
One more thing: If black residents in Bedford Falls are doing so well that they can pitch in to help a white dude out of a financial jam, then Bedford Falls is the place for me!  Tell Mark at WABC news talk radio that he can have Pottersville.  I'll take Bedford Falls.  I grew up watching It's A Wonderful Life.  All of last year, I was out of work, broke and seeking employment.  Thankfully, relatives took me in because I lost my apartment due to the recession.  So, in December when we all watched this holiday classic on NBC, I felt that I'd grown into It's A Wonderful Life.  It connected to a deeper part of my heart and soul.  You can discover more about a good book the second time you read it.  You can discover more about classic films when you see them again as you experience life.  Frank Capra, with his director's vision and his literature of film, was the Charles Dickens of Old Hollywood. Capra had great assistance from his screenplay co-writers -- Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.


  1. What an interesting post! I found it via Raquelle's blog Out of the Past. I'd never noticed there weren't any black folks in Pottersville. What a subtle yet significant message that sends. Thanks for helping me to take a fresh look at a beloved film.

    Best wishes,

  2. Bobby,

    This was a really fascinating and enlightening post about a film so familiar, one that I thought I had seen so many times that there wasn't much new to be gleaned from it. I'd never noticed the photos or decorations on the walls in the background of It's A Wonderful Life...your post clearly shows that Capra thought things through very carefully and had a deliberate message to convey, even if some of us only got it subliminally.

    Very nice write-up! And I wholeheartedly agree with you that our perspective and understanding of great films deepens the more we experience in life.



  3. Awesome and unique take on a movie we may not see as clearly after all these years.

  4. Very interesting and enlightening article Bobby! I agree with Jeff, I've seen this movie so many times that I've lost count, but I didn't realize how much of Capra's vision I overlooked. I'm now have a newfound excitement to watch this movie!!! Thanks again Bobby!!!

  5. A great post! I had noticed these things when I was younger, but in later years saw It's A Wonderful Life fall slip into the "sentimental movie" category. Thanks so much for refreshing my view of this movie-- you're right, there's a lot there for modern audiences to relate to.

  6. Thanks for the essay, Bobby. I enjoyed the movie on NBC tonight. It's always comforting.

  7. Terrific essay, thanks so much, Bobby! I loved your observation about the motif of flying and wings and wanted to add one to it: Harry Bailey is an air force flyer, isn't he? Thanks again, and have a wonderful holiday and a great New Year!

    1. LOVE your observation about George's brother being an air force flyer! Have a Great New Year and thank you so much for reading my article and taking time to comment on it.

  8. Thank you so much for this, Bobby; your detailed attention to Capra's attention to detail is very rewarding. A loving portrait of a diverse community -- no wonder some saw the film as possibly subversive. (On a related topic, I always thought Val Lewton deserved similar credit for his approach to race; his "The Cat People," "I Walked With a Zombie" and "The Leopard Man," for example, all feature black or Hispanic characters who are presented as real characters, never as cliches or comic relief.)

  9. Stephen -- oh, man -- thank you so so much for taking time to read what I wrote. How wonderful to get a comment from you. Happy New Year.

  10. I really like your writing style. Such a nice Post, Can’t wait for the next one.
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  11. Packaging revolutionary thought as wholesome America in a touching but not overly self-aggrandizing way is about the very most we could ever ask of a work of art - and magically, this film does it. Your love for the film captures its essence, that joy is social, dependent on mutual support, respect for our strengths and weaknesses, and everlasting loyalty to one another. Frankly, this is the socialist propaganda I've been looking for! :)

    Contrast that to Pottersville, the supposed "cool" place, where Nick the homophobic bartender has no time for any of Clarence's fey ways. Nick's vicious threat against any "characters spoiling the atmosphere" was only too spot on a portrayal of the bashing mentality endemic in "cool" places where ultra-masculinity reigns.

    I first saw you years ago on Channel 12. Can't believe I come across you again now after all these years... sweetly taking down the nihilist poseurs trying to come off like Pottersville is preferable. smh

    Please come back to Milwaukee and do a story about... Milwaukee. Your voice is one of a kind and many of us remember it very fondly from our youth. Given your careful take on Bedford Falls here, it makes me think that what you might have to say about Milwaukee would be very great viewing indeed.

  12. Thank you, omatty. Thank you so very much. Merry Christmas.

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  18. I know its late but I counted 3 blacks one playing the piano and 2 guys at the table .


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