George Washington, Howard Roark and George Bailey

[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.

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  If you really want to be happy in this world, and in the next, do good to others.  It is a truly simple lesson, but it is amazing how many people lead their entire lives without grasping it.  This of course is not happiness in the “Wee, that was a wild roller coaster ride!” sense, but in the sense of the satisfaction of a joy that surpasses understanding, the type of joy that parents experience as they see their kids growing up to be responsible parents themselves, or the joy of a priest who sees a penitent sinner embracing whole heartedly Christ.

It is not given us in this life to foreknow the tangled paths that our lives will follow or to predict what we will be remembered for, or if anyone will remember us at all after we are gone.  What we do know, however, is whether our lives are a blessing or a curse for those we encounter is very much determined by our own actions.  Altruism, love of neighbor, is an all important factor in determining the balance sheet of our lives, and often time that means going against our short-term selfish desires for what may turn out to be a path that leads us to what we will be remembered for.

A perfect example of this is George Washington.  Today is the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Trenton, in which Washington led a Continental Army on the point of defeat and dissolution across the Delaware and captured the entire Hessian garrison of some 900 troops at Trenton.  It is impossible to overstate the importance of the victory of Trenton.  It renewed hope in ultimate American victory in the struggle, led directly to a second American victory on January 3, 1777 at Princeton and the abandonment of much of New Jersey by the British.  But for this brilliant stroke by Washington, the American struggle for independence might well have died in the winter of 1776-1777.

And the man who worked this miracle, George Washington, was he a professional soldier who had always desired to be at the head of a great army and to gain victories that would echo down through the centuries?  Well, actually he was a Virginia planter and throughout the War, and when he served as first president of these United States, his personal correspondence centered upon Mount Vernon, his plantation, and instructions about the planting of crops, the care of livestock, prices for commodities, the upkeep of buildings, etc.  Left to his own desires Washington would have lived out his entire life at Mount Vernon, been quite happy, and been a footnote in our histories, if he appeared at all except for his service in the French and Indian War.  Instead, he answered the call to duty, took up the burden of command of the Continental Army in the Revolution, although he feared he was unequal to the task, and served as our first president, although he found the duties onerous and realized that he was sacrificing much of the remaining years of his life away from his beloved Mount Vernon.  Washington, as a result of his sacrifices, will be remembered as long as there is a United States and as long as men cherish freedom.  The path of altruism was for him also the path to his true life’s work.

The same can be said for George Bailey.

The above video is the pivotal scene in the movie.  George rises to the defense of his father’s life’s work:  the savings and loan that allows people in Bedford Falls to escape from Potter’s slums and become home owners.  To save the savings and loan, George gives his brother the money George has saved to go to college, so that he can attend college while George takes over the presidency of the savings and loan.  His journey down the path of altruism will cost him his dream of being an engineer, traveling the world and building huge products.  Instead he gains true love, a family and the admiration and respect of the people he helps in Bedford Falls.   His altruism is not a one way street, even in regard to business success.  Here I differ with Joe Carter who wrote:

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.

Actually, George Bailey is a man on his way up.  Due to his hard work, honesty and decency he has developed a strong community support for the Savings and Loan.  In a scene that is often overlooked in the film Potter is informed by his rent collector, played by Charles Lane, perhaps the best character actor of his era, that George Bailey is a mortal threat to his operation:

Fifteen years ago, a half-dozen houses stuck here and there.
(indicating map)
There’s the old cemetery, squirrels, buttercups, daisies. Used to
hunt rabbits there myself. Look at it today. Dozens of the
prettiest little homes you ever saw. Ninety
per cent owned by suckers who used to pay rent to you. Your
Potter’s Field, my dear Mr. Employer, is becoming just that. And
are the local yokels making with
those David and Goliath wisecracks!

Oh, they are, are they? Even though they know the Baileys haven’t
made a dime out of it.

You know very well why. The Baileys were all chumps. Every one of
these homes is worth twice what it cost the Building and Loan to
build. If I
were you, Mr. Potter . . .

POTTER (interrupting)
Well, you are not me.

REINEMAN (as he leaves)
As I say, it’s no skin off my nose. But one of these days this
bright young man is going to be asking George Bailey for a job.

This causes Potter to offer George a job, which, after being momentarily tempted, he angrily declines.  George has found his life’s work.  He doesn’t get to build a few grand projects around the globe, but many small projects in Bedford Falls, grand to those he benefits as a result.  Success is coming his way, with even the loss of $8,000.00, stolen by Potter courtesy of the absent-mindedness of Uncle Billy, being only a momentary set back.

Howard Roark on the other hand is supposed to be a brilliant architect, but I wonder how many projects he would get in the future after being crazy enough to dynamite a building because his artistic vision is being violated.  Gary Cooper, who played Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, thought the speech that Ayn Rand insisted that he deliver, precisely as she wrote it, in the video at the beginning of this post was crazy in parts and didn’t make much sense overall.  His woodenness throughout the film was an indication of a lack of comfort in a role he had little sympathy for, Cooper normally portraying men in films who were motivated by altruism for those they love.  A prime example of this type of role was his performance in Sergeant Yorkthe story of the Tennessee mountaineer, a Christian, who earned the medal of honor in World War I, for which he won an academy award in 1941.  Rand would complain about Cooper’s lack of passion in the role, but her ideological paean to selfishness embodied in the film, was the reason for Cooper’s lack of conviction in  a role he simply did not believe in.

It has been said that sin is its own punishment and virtue is its own reward.  I believe that.  However it is interesting how even in this often unjust world we see sin punished and virtue rewarded.  There are no guarantees, and many people will meet with justice only in the life to come, but even here on earth it is not that uncommon to see that our actions do have consequences, for ill and good.  The paths of our lives are hidden to us, but often some act of altruism we have the opportunity to perform points us on our way.  Something to keep in mind the day after Christmas and all days.

More to explorer


  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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).

  7. “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.

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