Frank Capra and Ayn Rand are two names not often mentioned together. Yet the cheery director of Capra-corn and the dour novelist who created Objectivism have more in common than you might imagine. Both were immigrants who made their names in Hollywood. Both were screenwriters and employees of the film studio RKO Pictures. And during the last half of the 1940s, both created works of enduring cult appeal, Capra with his film It’s a Wonderful Life and Rand with her novel 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, however, when one considers that Roark and Bailey are variations on a common archetype that has captured the American imagination for decades.
Howard Roark, the 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, George 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. Howard Roark is essentially what George Bailey might have become had he left for college rather than stayed in his 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 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, especially among young nerdy 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 twenty-something underemployed misfit who chooses not to “play by society’s rules.” These man-boys see themselves in the uncompromising sulker, believing it better to vandalize and destroy (if only verbally) than to allow society to co-opt their dreams.
Rand herself would have certainly envisioned things differently. She would have sneered in disgust at the idea that Roark was anything like the slackers working at Starbucks or the populists marching at Tea Party rallies. 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 exhibited sociopathic tendencies. She dreamed of the minority of brilliant, atheistic ubermensch who would “eventually trample society under its feet.” The vast majority of the people who read The Fountainhead might admire Roark, but they’d never emulate him—at least not in way that Rand would appreciate.
Similarly, Capra’s audience flatters themselves by believing the message of Wonderful Life is that their own lives are just as worthy, just as noble, and just as wonderful as George Bailey’s. In a way, they are as delusional as the Randian Roark-worshippers. Despite the fact that they left their small-town communities for the city, put their parents in an assisted living facility, and don’t know the names of their next door neighbors, they truly believe they are just like Capra’s hero.
Such delusions are the reason these characters have remained two of the most dominant archetypes of American individualism in pop culture. The pendulum of popularity is swinging back toward Rand but it’s Capra’s creation that should be our model for inspiration.
Roark is nihilistic, narrow-minded, and something of a bore. Bailey is far darker, more complex, and infinitely more interesting.
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 own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely and repeatedly for his sacrifices.
Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. It’s true that the movie ends on a happy note late on Christmas Eve, when George is saved from ruin. But on Christmas Day he’ll wake to find that his life is not so different than it was when he wanted to commit suicide.
George 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 faith, friends, and community—and that this is worth more than his worldly ambitions. 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.
This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most counter-cultural 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 radical individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic. Surely the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.
Of course the fans of The Fountainhead—at least those who view Roark as a moral model—are not likely to comprehend, much less adequately appreciate the subtext of Wonderful Life. Indeed, only a schizophrenic personality could aspire to emulate both Bailey and Roark, characters whose grave differences have been obscured by pop culture’s sentimentalism.
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 to be an infantile, narcissistic, parasite.
Bailey, on the other hand, is the type of character Rand would consider a villain. He exhibits 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 in doing so discovers that he has all that makes life worth living.
Sentimental claptrap? Probably so. Capra and Rand authored 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.” To fall for Rand’s foolish philosophy or Capra’s corny flicks is therefore to risk deceiving oneself. Perhaps I’m in such danger myself, but Capra makes me want to believe. While I know it may not always be a wonderful life, it would be better world if more of us aspired to be George Bailey and lived less like Howard Roark.
Note: This post is a revision of an essay I posted on my personal blog, Evangelical Outpost, in 2006.