George Washington, Howard Roark and George Bailey

Friday, December 26, AD 2014

[34] But the Pharisees hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees, came together:

[35] And one of them, a doctor of the law, asking him, tempting him:

[36] Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?

[37] Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.

[38] This is the greatest and the first commandment.

[39] And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

[40] On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.

Matthew 22: 34-40

(I originally posted this on December 26, 2012.  It seems like a good post for the day after Christmas, so here it is again.)

Joe Carter at Catholic Education Resource Center has a wonderful post entitled The Fountainhead of Bedford Falls, which compares the fictional characters Howard Roark and George Bailey:

Not surprisingly, Roark has become something of a cult figure, especially among young nerdy males entering post-adolescence. Although Roark is artistically gifted and technically brilliant, he prefers to take a job breaking rocks in a quarry than sell out to The Man. He provides a model for the underemployed, misunderstood, twenty-something misfit by choice. These see themselves in the uncompromising sulker, believing it better to vandalize and destroy than allow society to co-opt their dreams.

Rand herself would have certainly envisioned things differently. She would have sneered in disgust at the idea that Roark was anything like the slacker working at Starbucks the populists marching at Tea Parties. Her hero was a cross between the modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the serial killer and child rapist William Hickman. Rand’s ideal was the nonconformist who exhibited sociopathic tendencies. She dreamed of the minority of brilliant, atheistic ubermensch who would “eventually trample society under its feet.” The vast majority of the people who read The Fountainhead might admire Roark, but they’d never emulate him.

Similarly, Capra’s audience flatters themselves by believing the message of Wonderful Life is that their own lives are just as worthy, just as noble, and just as wonderful’ as George Bailey’s. In a way, they are as delusional as the Randian Roark-worshippers. Despite the fact that they left their small-town communities for the city, put their parents in an assisted living facility and don’t know the names of their next door neighbors, they truly believe they are just like Capra’s hero.

Such delusions are the reason these characters have remained two of the most dominant archetypes of American individualism in pop culture. The pendulum of popularity is swinging back toward Rand but it’s Capra’s creation that should be our model for inspiration.

Roark is nihilistic, narrow-minded, and something of a bore. Bailey is far darker, more complex, and infinitely more interesting.

What makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in modern popular culture is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires – and suffers immensely and repeatedly for his sacrifices.  

 Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. It’s true that the movie ends on a happy note late on Christmas Eve, when George is saved from ruin. But on Christmas Day he’ll wake to find that his life is not so different than it was when he wanted to commit suicide.

 He will remain a frustrated artist who is scraping by on a meager salary and living in a drafty old house in a one-stoplight town. All that has really changed is that he has gained a deeper appreciation of the value of faith, friends, and community – and that this is worth more than his worldly ambitions. Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: It is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.

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8 Responses to George Washington, Howard Roark and George Bailey

  • I’ve enjoyed this look into the soul of man. Many thanks. When pondering on the concept of, made in the likeness and image of God, it is precisely this self-sacrifice that George Bailey (reluctantly at times) finds himself. The “loosing of oneself.” It is in this loosing that our true identity is revealed…the one in which we see an image and likeness of divinity itself. The death of self is the beginning of a life that surpasses expectations, the skyscrapers bridges and grandiose accomplishments are manifested in the depth of Georges heart…in the servitude to the people around him. They ARE the great works and George is helping to build them.

  • The Church in America was given the choice to sell out to The Man and, alas, her bishops took it. Inviting in the smoke that materialized as Obamacare was not the first such sell out and hasn’t been the last. (Heard a bishop thunder from the pulpit about casting a vote with an informed conscience during the election year? I haven’t. Been hit up for a handout to the Catholic Campaign for Obam-alinsky Development? I have.)

    So I must ask: if the Church’s bishops had chosen more wisely and not sold out, would that have made them cult-figure sociopaths too?

  • Thank you The power of movies and stories as parables is profound, i think, because when a parable is told, whether by Rand or Capra or by Jesus, we get to observe and consider that parable more or less remotely; detached enough that we can draw conclusions and learn lessons without having to fight through the fog of defensiveness. it is happening in someone else’s life, but we can relate.
    “but even here on earth it is not that uncommon to see that our actions do have consequences, for ill and good. ” We tell stories of noble lives hoping they might help guide young people through — maybe avoid some of those consequences! God bless those film makers who are actively trying to “do Good” with their work.

  • To me, the “best” scene is where young George Bailey declines to deliver the poison Mr. Gour (?) mistakenly mixed (because he had imminently learned of his son’s death). At an early age, George Bailey was tested. Even then, he had the maturity and love to see the good and evil and chose to do the good regardless of the personal cost/risks. Even better, George never said a word to anyone about the mistake. The desultory testing of GB follows throughout the movie.

    We are ever presented with choices: good or evil. love or hate, our desires or the common good, life or death. Sometimes, we need to take a step outside ourselves and dispassionately review what we have done, and decide if we chose good or evil. Go to Confession . . .

    We hear a lot about peace at this time. What is peace? It is simplistically the absence of war/violence. But, for us peace needs to be more. Peace needs to be love for God and for our brothers/sisters. It means that we are not only not about to harm our fellow man, but that we will aid him if he needs it; and forgive him if he harms us. Peace is love. It is not that warm/fuzzy kumbaya stuff, either. Peace oftens involves physical/worldly courage, pain, and sacrifice. The rewards of eternal life (which Christ purchased for us by His life, death and Resurrection) are infinitely more desirable than any temporal good.

    Anyhow, the meditation in my Rosary booklet for the Nativity, the Third Joyful Mystery, is to (I add fiercely) desire to love God. And, to think of how Mary so lovingly accepted poverty as she lay the infant Jesus, Our God and Redeemer, in a manger in the stable in Bethlehem.

    And, none of that is possible without God’s grace. Remember when Peter first told Jesus He is is his Lord and his God? Jesus tells Peter, that God had given him that faith and Peter “picked up the ball and ran with it” albeit with a few “hiccups” along the way.

  • Anzlyne. Agreed. God bless filmmakers and artists that strive to promote goodness trumping the commercial aspect. ($) The public is thirsty for such films.

    T.Shaw. That young George was “born older” as his father told him at the dinning room table. Recall the heroic jump into the icy water to rescue his younger brother. And as you mentioned Mr. Gower’s shame concealed by Georges maturity at such a young age. GRACE for sure.
    God has loved us so much and for so much longer than we have attempted to love him. “Behold the Heart that has loved man so much and has been loved so little in return.” Jesus to St. M.Mary Alacoke…the Sacred Heart appriation

  • ( apparition. ) please excuse me.

  • This is a bit off topic, but to me the best love scene of all time is the phone conversation between George (James Stewart) and Mary (Donna Reed).

  • “the American struggle for independence might well have died in the winter of 1776-1777.”
    The American struggle for independence will live on in every generation. Man is hardwired for independence.