Frank Capra and Ayn Rand are two names not often mentioned together. Yet the cheery director of “Capra-corn” movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the dour novelist who wrote Atlas Shrugged and created Objectivism have more in common than you might imagine.
Both Capra and Rand were immigrants who made a name for themselves in Hollywood. Both were screenwriters and employees of RKO Pictures. And during the 1940s, both created works of enduring cult appeal, Capra with his 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life and Rand with her 1943 novel (and 1949 movie) The Fountainhead.
The pair also created two of the most memorable characters in modern pop culture: Howard Roark and George Bailey. To anyone familiar with both works, it would seem the two characters could not be more different. Unexpected similarities emerge, though, when we consider that Roark and Bailey are variations on a common archetype that has captured the American imagination for almost a century.
Tale of Two Individualists
Roark, the atheist protagonist of Rand’s book, is an idealistic young architect who chooses to struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his artistic and personal vision by conforming to the needs and demands of the community. In contrast, Bailey, the hero of Capra’s film, is an idealistic young would-be architect who struggles in obscurity because he has chosen to conform to the needs and demands of the community rather than fulfill his artistic and personal vision. Roark is essentially what Bailey might have become had he left for college rather than stayed in his small hometown of Bedford Falls.
Rand portrays Roark as a demigod-like hero who refuses to subordinate his self-centered ego to the demands of living in a community. Capra, in stark contrast, portrays Bailey as an amiable but flawed man who becomes a reluctant hero precisely because he chooses to subordinate his self-centered ego for the greater good of the community.
Not surprisingly, Roark has become something of a cult figure for individualists, especially among bookish young 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 20something underemployed misfit who chooses not to “play by society’s rules.” These man-boys see themselves in Rand’s uncompromising sulker, believing it better to vandalize and destroy (if only verbally) than to allow society to co-opt their dreams.
Rand would have certainly envisioned things differently. She would have sneered in disgust at the idea that Roark was anything like the underemployed slackers trolling normies on Reddit. 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 showed sociopathic tendencies. She dreamed of the brilliant, atheistic Übermensch who would “eventually trample society under its feet.” Readers of The Fountainhead might admire Roark, but they (blessedly) rarely emulate him—and even more rarely imitate him in a way Rand would appreciate.
Similarly, individualistic members of Capra’s audience tend to flatter themselves by believing the message of It’s a Wonderful Life is that their lives are just as wonderful because they are as noble as Bailey. In a way, Bailey’s fans may be more delusional than the Randian Roark-worshipers. They might truly believe they are just like Capra’s hero, even though they have abandoned families, churches, and communities anytime such commitments interfered with following their dreams.
Such delusions are the reason these characters have remained two of the most dominant archetypes of individualism in pop culture. Americans tend to vacillate between these two models, from Roark’s “I live for myself and answer to nobody” to Bailey’s “I would prefer to do my own thing, but I have people who are counting on me.” The pendulum of popularity is swinging back toward the Randian hero, including among Christians who should know better.
But it’s Capra’s creation that is more inspiring—and more interesting. Roark is nihilistic, narrow-minded, and something of a bore. Bailey is far darker, more complex, and infinitely more intriguing.
Suffering and Self-Sacrifice Can’t Save
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 self-interested ambitions and desires and yet suffers immensely and repeatedly for his sacrifices.
Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. Even though Bailey almost always, albeit reluctantly, puts others ahead of himself, it’s not enough to save him. His self-sacrifice cannot even save him from despair. On the brink of suicide, with nowhere else to turn, he cries out,
Oh, God . . . Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there, and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. I . . . Show me the way, God.
For the remainder of the movie we see how God answers that prayer. Not surprisingly, like most holiday fare, the story ends on a happy note. Late on Christmas Eve, by the grace of God and the beneficence of friends, Bailey is saved from financial and reputational ruin.
But what happens the next morning? On Christmas Day Bailey will wake to find that his life is not so externally different than a few hours earlier when he wanted to commit suicide. Bailey will remain a frustrated artist who is scraping by on a meager salary while 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 friends and community. And he has learned that only God can save him.
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. Yet even such sacrifice is ultimately hopeless if we don’t first surrender to God.
This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most countercultural films in the history of cinema. Almost every movie about the individual in society—from Easy Rider to Happy Feet—is based on the premise that self-actualization is the primary purpose of existence. To a society that accepts expressive individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic.
Of course, the fans of The Fountainhead—at least those who consider Roark a moral model—are not likely to comprehend, much less adequately appreciate, the subtext of It’s a Wonderful Life. Roark lives to create inspiring works of architecture but cannot do so without relying on others. When society fails to appreciate his genius, his egotistical purity leads him to engage in a vandalistic and destructive temper tantrum. By the end of The Fountainhead, Roark is revealed as an infantile, narcissistic, parasitic terrorist. He is a human archetype of Satan.
Bailey, on the other hand, is the type of character Rand would consider a villain. He shows the qualities of a repressed, conformist, patsy. He lives for others rather than “following his bliss” or “going Galt.” Bailey compromises everything but his integrity and surrenders to God, and in doing so discovers that he has all that makes life worth living.
Sentimental claptrap? Probably so. Capra and Rand wrote utterly different narratives but are guilty of the same sort of sentimentalism. As William Butler Yeats said, “The rhetorician would deceive others, the sentimentalist himself.” Rand’s self-deceptively foolish philosophy was a primary influence on LaVayian Satanism. And Capra’s corny flick deceives itself (and its audience) by being a Christmas movie that avoids Christ.
But while Capra’s film doesn’t point us to the gospel, and thus doesn’t go far enough, it does reveal an essential truth of Christmas: Our Creator came to save us because we can’t save ourselves. When George Bailey cries out, “Please, God, let me live again,” it’s not merely because he’s discovered that it’s a wonderful life but because he found he can’t save his own life.
Therein lies a lesson for all of us expressive individualists. If we can’t save ourselves, we can’t create ourselves. Someone greater must “show us the way,” which creates in us an obligation to surrender and follow. Rather than heed Howard Roark’s belief that “man’s first duty is to himself,” we must learn, like George Bailey, that our first duty is to surrender to God and die to self (Gal. 2:20). Only down that narrow path will we discover the way to a wonderful, and eternal, life.