It is fashionable to smile when reminded of the author Clifford Odets. His Waiting For Lefty and the associated body of his works reflected that old 1930s view of capitalism and capitalists. Naivete, they came to call it, when being kind. Capitalists were not really like those characterized in the old movies, now were they? Skinflints, grouches, and crooks for the most part, but with power over those poor, but kind downtrodden folk who, in most of the social commentary movies, wound up victorious near the closing credits. Yes, the poor but honest folk nearly always won out, and sometimes even won over the grouchy capitalist in the process.
Decades ago there was a feeling abroad in the land; the captains of industry were enemies of the people, out to do them in when they could. No need to examine how much of this feeling was imported from other soils. It found ready sustenance once here, and the hard times of the ’30s watered it with a fierce reality.
But we have outgrown those silly attitudes, have we not? Wait a minute. The most popular movie of all time, the one you see annually at Christmas time, is a prime vehicle for that socialist belief, and is unconsciously beloved by all. It is It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra and, most have been led to believe, written by several screenwriters. Hardly anyone knows the original title, “Greatest Gift,” and that it was written by Clifford Odets in 1944. Odets was then employed by RKO Radio Pictures. January 24, 1945, Odets signed over his rights of authorship to material “tentatively entitled ‘Greatest Gift,'” giving RKO the right to make what changes it saw fit. It became the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, with writing credits to Philip Van Doren Stern and Francis Goodrich.
But who doubts the Odets touch as the innocent George Bailey grovels before the capitalist Henry Potter? Mr. Henry Potter, that is. James Stewart is everyman here. Lionel Barrymore as Potter is the American capitalist, ruthless, avaricious, contemptuous of all that appears courteous or kind. As we discover, George Bailey foregoes his opportunity to escape smalltown life, wins the lovely Donna Reed, and finally beats the system with the aid of an angel working through George to get his wings. Kindness and simplemindedness wins. Well, heck, you know the story. You see it every year.
The problem with looking at Odets as a merely talented leftist with an old-world view of the American system is this: modern American capitalists are fulfilling his prophecy! It is as if the SEC, the New York State Attorney-General, and a host of other enforcement agencies are writing Odets sequels, finding villains to match Henry Potter in a dozen and more boardrooms. From Enron on, we are being subjected to a dirty movie without a musical score and without a George Bailey: titans of industry proving as feckless as Potter and, in many cases, more greedy. What happened? Didn’t these guys see the movie?
Or did they? And is there something in the DNA of empire builders that cottons more to Potters than to Baileys? If so, then Clifford Odets is owed an apology.