Frank Capra was an Italian-born American filmmaker who defined his craft throughout the 1930s and ’40s. His films earned dozens of Academy Award nominations and won multiple Oscars, including two for best picture and three for best director. You may recognize some of Capra’s signature works: “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Meet John Doe” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Capra infused his films with themes of hard work, patriotism and the American dream, mirroring his life’s path from poor immigrant son to towering success. Fiercely devoted to his adopted country, Capra enlisted in the Army twice, serving in both world wars. By the time of his second enlistment ‒ days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor ‒ Capra was in his 40s and considered one of the most successful directors in Hollywood history. Yet he turned his talents to the Army, for which he produced a series of inspiring documentaries, “Why We Fight.”
It was after World War II that Capra directed “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Though now a holiday classic, and a clear favorite of the banking community, the film was deemed a box office flop in 1946. Perhaps the project fell victim to a national shift away from the political principles and social mores that Capra so proudly espoused. Following that box office disappointment came several lackluster films and, by the 1960s, Capra was all but forgotten.
Change happens, and Capra seemed unable or unwilling to change and eschew all that he believed in. Is our country facing the same dilemma? Is the world facing the same dilemma? Governments and economic systems have changed. At one time we acted collectively in the same way that we act individually. An example is debt. Individuals use debt to purchase what they need and occasionally what they want. Prior to the financial crisis, individuals were using debt excessively to satisfy unrealistic wants. In recent years, collectively, the federal government has become a huge debtor, using debt to finance what people want, not necessarily what people really need.
If only this problem were confined to the United States, we could work to correct it, but it is spreading worldwide. Most of the nations of Europe, as best evidenced by Greece, for years have been spending well beyond their means, and today they cannot service their debt. Further East, China has been ambitiously building cities throughout the country, some designed for a million people, but so far there are no inhabitants. Does that sound like good fiscal management?
What will come from this worldwide change? Despite my concerns, I do believe the United States is in the best position to weather this storm of change. We have bountiful resources for food and water. We are nearly energy-independent and, at least for now, the dollar is the de facto world currency. We have the most diversified financial services industry in the world to provide the necessary capital that can undergird future business ventures.
We will, of course, need to adapt to changing times but, like Frank Capra, let us not compromise our basic tenets. I am hopeful that, in the long run, common sense will prevail. Our form of government is, admittedly, at times inefficient and messy, but it works better than any other form of government on earth.
Many thanks to the late Mr. Capra for his vision, patriotism and optimism. May we share his belief system in recognizing what is right, and be willing to stand up for it. And may we remember the message he brought home with his last major film: For the banker who helps build communities, it’s a wonderful life.
– S. Joe DeHaven