It's a Wonderful Life - What We Learn at the Movies

Hollywood Reflects Values and an Innovative Gym With a Swimming Pool

A poster for Frank Capra's 1946 comedy-drama "It's A Wonderful Life"
Movie Poster for "It's a Wonderful Life". Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty Images (cropped)

George Bailey has the mind of an architect. The main character in Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life wants to travel and "see the world" when he's young — Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum — all traditional places to study architecture. Then he wants to build things — "skyscrapers a hundred stories high" and "bridges a mile long." Although this quotable Hollywood classic is traditional Christmastime fare, It's a Wonderful Life says plenty about American values and the way we live.

The Swim Gym

A favorite scene in the movie is the graduation dance at the local high school. During the Charleston competition, the actors Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart plunge beneath the gym floor into the swimming pool below. What a stunt! Was that just more Hollywood magic? Not at all. The Beverly Hills High School was used in that classic 1946 film scene, and the Swim Gym is still used today.

The architecture works just the way it does in the movie — a gym floor covers a swimming pool and can mechanically roll aside with a key and a button. The system was designed by architect Stiles O. Clements and built in 1939 under the Work Projects Administration (WPA). The WPA was one of the top New Deal programs that helped America out of the Great Depression. The federal government paid millions of unemployed Americans to build schools, bridges, beaches, and hundreds of other public works projects.

Like the Swim Gym, many of these federal projects from this era are still in use today, including the Levitt Shell in Memphis where Elvis Presley first performed and many, many post office buildings throughout the United States. WPA projects often brought new ideas and artistry to everyday buildings and structures.

The Beverly Hills High School Swim Gym is a great example of innovative public architecture paid for with government funds.

The Film Also Explores Values

But this film is much more than showing off the technology of the day. Sure, it's about fun, but the plot revolves around business values during the post-Depression, mid-century building boom in the United States. The ongoing conflict is between an unrelenting old businessman named Henry F. Potter and his competition, the family business known as the Bailey Building and Loan. The character of George Bailey explained the workings of his family's financial institution to anxious patrons who had just made a "run on the bank":

"You're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money's not here. Your money's in Joe's house...right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others. Why, you're lending them the money to build, and then, they're going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?"

The arch enemy to the savings and loan lending system was the banker, Mr. Potter, who would have foreclosed on any "rabble" who could not pay.

Back in 1946, the Baileys saw a community of people helping each other — to Potter, everything was money and business.

Fast Forward to the 21st Century

When It's a Wonderful Life is shown every year around Christmastime, we are reminded of the value conflicts between builders and banks. We remember our own 21st century housing crisis. Profit-driven practices in the banking and housing industry contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and economic downturn. Banks loaned money to people who could not pay it back, and lenders did this purely for financial reasons — the liability for those loans was shipped away from the community and sold for a higher investment return. Unlike the Bailey Building and Loan, 21st century banks were not investing in the community — profit was the only goal. The system may have made financial sense to some, but the scheme was unsustainable.

Architecture is about building and design, but in most cases the business of architecture is about cost. What does this design cost compared to another design? Can One World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan be built for less money if the symbolic height of 1776 feet is made up of a spire instead of full floors? What if we build an office building and can't lease the space? Could we make more money in this housing development if we overlooked accessibility and green design? What will we sacrifice to save money, to make money, or to advance a career?

A Couple of Decent Rooms and a Bath

In the end, It's a Wonderful Life is a cautionary tale, examining the values of a community and the strengths of its individual members. In our lives, we each have choices to make, and decisions have consequences. The undesirable Pottersville explored in the "what if" section of the movie has become a metaphor for the Las Vegas-ization of our urban landscape. Where is the Pottersville in your community?

In addition to the fun at the swim gym, the other idea that makes this movie so uplifting is that the community of Bedford Falls did not succumb to urban decay and become the metaphoric Pottersville — in large part because George Bailey stood up for the common man. As Bailey tells Potter:

"Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about...they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they're cattle."

When we think about building our communities, consider that people live in these built environments. The person is part of the architectural world. And, like Laugier's 18th century primitive hut, the architectural requirements are generally modest. Make sure that everyone has "a couple of decent rooms and a bath." And a more modern actor like Brad Pitt would add, "Make it Right." The power is in the person, and one person can make a difference.

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