Iowa History
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Iowa History

At 75, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Offers Real-Life History Lessons

Bank runs were familiar events for Iowans in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Mary Bailey (Donna Reed) saves the Bailey Building & Loan by offering money planned for her honeymoon to satisfy anxious customers. (Paramount Pictures)

Frank Capra may have loved small-town America, but George Bailey definitely did not.

Capra’s classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” tells the story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who dreamed of escaping Bedford Falls to travel the world. But his plans run into one hitch after another: a budding romance with Mary Hatch (Denison native Donna Reed), the unexpected death of his father, and a call to save the family business.

Eventually, after George’s uncle loses a bank deposit to a greedy miser, George considers jumping off a bridge — until an angel named Clarence saves him in the nick of time.

Now, 75 years after the movie’s premiere, Leo Landis from the State Historical Society of Iowa and Christopher Wilson from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will lead an online presentation called “Hollywood & Iowa: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life” at noon Dec. 9. It’s part of the state historical society’s ongoing Iowa History 101 series and will strip away some of the movie’s Yuletide tinsel to examine its hidden cultural themes and historical references.

“The movie is set in 1945, just after World War II,” Wilson said. So “when Clarence is giving a history lesson to George, the audience is getting a history lesson, too, from 1919 to 1945.”

Wilson and Landis plan to unpack some of those lessons during their program, including:

· The 1918–1919 Spanish Flu. At his after-school job at the soda fountain, young George makes young Mary a sundae and shows a copy of National Geographic magazine. He talks about visiting the Fiji Islands someday and eating coconuts before noticing his boss in the back room, sullen and drinking, with a telegram that says his son had died of influenza. “That was affecting people all over and reflects what we’re going through today,” Wilson said.

· The Great Depression. At home in the parlor, George and Mary talk on the telephone with a friend about moving to New York for a new job turning soybeans into plastics and then starting such a factory in Bedford Falls. “That idea actually came from Henry Ford, who was a proponent of ‘growing your way out of the Depression’ by providing industrial markets for agricultural commodities,” Wilson said.

· Race relations. The Baileys’ housekeeper, Annie (Lillian Randolph) “is the butt of jokes and you can see how African Americans were treated in the film as almost invisible,” Wilson said. “She was there for comic relief but presented as a 50-year-old woman working for a white family and may have been sexually assaulted. It’s treated with levity, which is not the way we look at it today.”

· Capitalism and socialism. The greedy bank president, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), tries to fleece the community by keeping $8,000 of the Building and Loan money and sabotaging George’s business. “This part of the storyline has overtones of unions and socialism, and the fate of workers and their ability to organize and support themselves,” Wilson said.

Landis said the online program also will explore Prohibition, immigration, Charleston dance competitions and cultural issues of the early 20th century.

Charleston dance competitions were popular across the nation and Iowa in the mid-1920s. Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) and George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) jumped into the craze in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” (Paramount Pictures)

“When we’re looking at how the movie addresses ethnicity, Italians are viewed as dangerous, as shown by the seedy bar, Nick’s, whose proprietor fits multiple underworld and Italian stereotypes,” Landis said. “From an Iowa perspective, Italian slurs were commonplace in 1920s Iowa media. So perceptions of un-Americanism is a theme we’ll talk about.”

As the movie concludes, George accepts small-town life, Clarence gets his wings and the people of Bedford Falls show their gratitude. But is there a happy ending?

“The lasting image shows George and Mary being embraced by their family and friends,” Landis said. “But is the movie resolved or unresolved? It’s unresolved to a degree. They’ve raised the money so there’s no shortage at the bank, but has anybody figured out Potter still has the $8,000?”

The Iowa History 101 presentation is part of a year-long celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of Donna Reed’s birth, co-organized by the State Historical Society of Iowa and Produce Iowa, the state office of film and media production.

Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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