Alphabetical Movie – It’s a Wonderful Life
Every time I watch It’s a Wonderful Life, I wonder how they managed to get that ending past the Hays office.
For those unaware of the Hays code, it was a strict set of guidelines that was meant to ensure that American films were morally “acceptable.” One of the more important parts of the code was that criminal behavior could not go unpunished. Bad guys ended up in jail or dead. Period.
Quick aside: I know it is silly to warn about spoilers for a movie almost everyone has seen but if you haven’t actually seen the film yet and you don’t want the ending spoiled, I’d suggest you don’t read on.
For those of you who have seen the film, I think you might guess where I’m going with this.
At the end of the film George Bailey’s friends shower him with money to help save him after his uncle “loses” 8000 dollars. Bailey has realized the importance of his own life, recognizes that friends and family will always be the most important thing, and Clarence gets his wings.
Thing is, Uncle Billy didn’t just lose the money. Potter effectively stole the money from him when he failed to tell Billy or George that the money was in his possession. He was well aware the money wasn’t his and further, he was aware that it belonged to George Bailey.
As if stealing the money wasn’t bad enough, Potter goes on to swear out a false report to the police about Bailey. He knows Bailey didn’t commit fraud. Potter isn’t just an asshole, he’s a criminal!
Or sure, you could argue that he didn’t technically commit theft because the money in question was payment on a loan Potter made to Bailey. It could be argued that the money Potter took was his own.
Even so, he should have then reported that Bailey had paid his installment rather than hiding the money and calling the police. I would also think that legally it wasn’t his money until it was handed to the teller. I think it’s fair to say we are still talking about theft.
So we know that Potter has engaged in fraud and is also probably a thief. Those are both criminal acts.
Ever notice that at the end of the film, the one thing we don’t know is what happens to Potter?
Probably nothing, right? Bailey, we assume, gets the money he needs from his friends and he pays Potter the installment on his loan and Potter gets away with it.
How did the Hays office miss that?
One theory would be that the censors weren’t very bright. Alfred Hitchcock always put things into his films he knew the censors would cut just so he could get something else through.
The ending of It’s a Wonderful Life is so life affirming and uplifting, it’s hard to notice that the villain of the piece faces no serious consequences for his actions. It seems doubtful that what happened to Potter would be on the mind of anyone watching the film for the first time.
Let’s be clear – I think the ending of the film is better because Potter gets away with it. I want Potter to get screwed over as much as the next person with a sense of moral outrage but the movie isn’t about Potter.
Taking time at the end of the film to punish Potter would completely miss the point. In a larger sense, we know what happens to Potter. He spends Christmas in his bank with no-one but his Lurch-like attendant to keep him company. George Bailey pays his debt and has a huge number of loving friends and family who will surround him for the rest of his life.
In part because he’ll never leave Bedford Falls. Never. He’s trapped there forever.
Aside: it would take very little to turn this film into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Potter will die the way he’s lived – alone. There is absolutely no question that Potter will pay for the choices he’s made. We don’t need to see how.
Even knowing that, I’m amazed the Hays office missed it.
Good thing, though. They probably would have had Zuzu say “look daddy! Every time a bell rings, an angel gets their wings and a sour, greedy old man goes to jail!”
Of course, if you really MUST see how the movie might have turned out…
I think it probably passed the standards because it seems like Potter was punished. The entire meat of the movie takes place in “Pottersville”, and in the end George is there again, and we realize Pottersville was never actualized – so it feels like he was punished. Granted, it’s in alternative timelines, but it still comes off as a punishment to the audience.
Possibly. But in the Hays era, “punishment” was far more literally interpreted. Crooks went to jail. Murderers ended up dead. Potter still has his wealth, his position and his office. By the traiditional standards of the Hays era, he gets away with it.