It's a wonderful(ly boring) life in Bedford Falls! The argument for Pottersville

In a 2001 piece on Salon (unearthed by the one and only Frances Martel, formerly of Mediaite), Gary Kamiya puts his weight behind Pottersville, the so-called filthy, dirty slum of George Bailey's alternate universe in It's A Wonderful Life that was supposed to turn him away from suicide and back to the glorious mundanity of Bedford Falls. As it turns out, Pottersville is probably way more fun -- and exactly what George had been looking for! Maybe not the Girls Girls Girls, but the spontaneity? The excitement? The parties? Yes! Go on with your bad self, George Bailey! Violet will be waiting for you! (Thanks, Frances!)


    1. Indeed. Where in Pottersville do you suppose all those working class immigrants ended up, the ones who were buying homes with low interest loans from George Bailey?

  1. The problem with Pottersville is you’re a lot less likely to be able to _afford_ the fun and much more likely to be part of the exploited underclass.

  2. Ah, Pottersville, the booze, the drugs, the cathouses, the corruption, the greedy bankers, etc., sort of like today, a GOP dreamland.

    1. More the secret dreamland of Libertarians and Objectivists, who always see themselves in these fantasies as the Potter-like tycoons instead of the exploited peons.

  3. I might agree with the author if it wasn’t for the pawn shop.  Every time I watch IAWL with my wife that’s the thing that really turns me off about Pottersville “Bar that I’d probably like, bar that I’d probably like, fights that I’m not really into but don’t have a problem with, bar that I’d probably like, dancehall meh, PAWNSHOP.  Somebody’s getting screwed.”

    I will say that “We serve hard drinks for men who want to get drunk fast and we don’t need any ‘characters’ hanging around to give the joint ‘atmosphere’.” is something that I’d love to see on a sign at a bar.  In fact, I’m surprised that no one makes one.

    1. If they did a modern remake you’d see a storefront with a yellow sign and the words “Potter Payday Loans” in big red letters. Right next door to the “Rent-to-Own” appliance and electronics store.

      Yeah, it’s that kind of town.

  4. Pottersville was there to show George that he was a true pillar of the community and to make him realize that everything he lived for would be ruined without him. Even if it was like the places he dreamed of visiting, getting that dream wasn’t worth the sacrifice he would have to make, which is why he never really pursued the dream to begin with.

    I remember thinking Pottersville a scary place when I was a kid, but rewatching it as an adult, I had the same thoughts – Pottersville looks like a lot more fun.

  5. If you haven’t seen it I recommend the movie “Meet John Doe” especially this time of year. It is very modern. The story of a newspaper that is folding that dreams up a story of a guy who has lost hope in getting a job and threatens to kill himself on Christmas eve if he doesn’t. It becomes “a thing” and the paper decides to hire someone to be this guy. Along the way he creates a movement about caring for your fellow man. A rich guy decides he wants to get into the world of politics but doesn’t really care for the little man, so he co-opts John Doe’s group to push him.
    It’s really about the media as much as about the rich and powerful and how they will exploit popular things/people.

  6. The problem with Kamiya’s analysis is that Pottersville remains at its base what Bedford Falls is: a small town where the prospects are limited. Adding cheap thrills to it and adding a few more bars doesn’t make it any less provincial, any less of a trap for those like George who dream of striking out for the big city or the wide world.

    We only see Pottersville at night, but we can easily guess from the town’s name (and Capra’s own knowledge of recent American history) what the daytime picture looks like: a company town run by a greedhead and his sinister cronies, where the exploited and exhausted workers are paid just enough to live in the squalor of Potter-owned slums and spend the rest relieving their boredom and despair through booze, hookers, gambling and who knows what other vices.

    Potter doesn’t allow these businesses to run rampant in his town for their own sake (although he probably gives some lip service to his proto-Libertarianism when reformers show up). You can bet that each and every one of those addiction-driven businesses is allowed to exist by this joyless man only so long as it drains the residents’ intiative and their cash. You can also bet that, through the convenience of owning the only bank in town, Potter wets his beak in the revenues of every single bar, girlie show, pool hall, and pawn shop.

    All this means that the average resident has even less chance of getting out of Pottersville than George ever had of escaping Bedford Falls. George may have been bored and miserable stuck in in Bedford Falls, Capra argues, but if he didn’t exist life would be worse for his family and friends in Pottersville — a misery-driven simulacrum of big-city excitement.

  7. Did Mr. Potter (Mr. was apparently his first name) also have a wonderful life? If he had never existed, would the “banker with a heart” have frittered away the capital of the townspeople? Did Mr. Potter make it possible for a town with a healthy economy to rescue Bailey’s bank?

    1. George’s plan is to build affordable but solid housing to replace Potter’s slums and presumably finance the (real, not securitised “liars'”) mortgages of their owners. This is not necessarily frittering away the capital of the townspeople. George’d probably want to give Uncle Billy a job more suited to his abilities, like sweeping up after hours, but George and the other employees have the potential to turn it into a modestly profitable business that benefits the community.

      Potter, meanwhile, wasn’t looking to “rescue” the Building and Loan any more than Bain Capital was looking to “rescue” its acquisitions. He’s a vulture capitalist (and a monopolist to boot) who waits until a business is desperate before buying it and busting it out. The economy of a company town filled with slums and sin-based businesses is only healthy for one person. In Bedford Falls he’s still the wealthiest man in town, but others are prosperous, too.

      A very relevant movie to our times, now that you bring this up.

  8. When Marx penned his immortal words about “the idiocy of rural life,” he probably had Bedford Falls in mind.

    See, this is the problem right here.

    The “idiocy of rural life” is the result of the isolation of (pre-industrial) peasants. It’s by contrast with urban life, in which people live and work closely together, and in communication with the wider world. Bedford Falls was a large, dynamic, prosperous town, and emphatically urban. The way the community rallies to save George Bailey’s bank is the exact opposite of “rural idiocy”. It was the revelation of a coherent community recognizing itself.

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