Banking on "It's a Wonderful Life"

Mashup video of classic flick is used in revolt against big financial institutions. But can George Bailey of Bedford Falls bring down Wall Street?

By Jere Hester
|  Tuesday, Jan 5, 2010  |  Updated 12:00 AM EDT
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In late 1986, amid the early rumblings of the savings and loan crisis, "Saturday Night Live" ran a skit showing, in black and white, the "lost ending" of "It's a Wonderful Life."

The "SNL" version featured George Bailey and his pals kicking the stuffing out of evil Mr. Potter. “I want a piece of you, Potter!” Dana Carvey, channeling Jimmy Stewart, declared in the funny revenge fantasy.

More than two decades later, with the country mired in a financial mess, imagery from the Frank Capra classic is being employed in a push that's big on revenge, but not, its supporters hope, on fantasy.

Arianna Huffington and former Senate Banking Committee chief economist Rob Johnson recently penned a piece published on The Huffington Post calling on Americans to move their money out of major financial institutions and into smaller operations, like the kind of local savings and loan the fictional Bailey ran in the 1946 movie.

“Think of the message it will send to Wall Street – and to the White House. That we have had enough of the high-flying, no-limits-casino banking culture that continues to dominate Wall Street and Capitol Hill,” Huffington and Johnson wrote, trumpeting the “Move Your Money” campaign.

To help get the point across, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (“The Trials of Henry Kissinger”) mashed up scenes from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with news footage about the financial crisis and title cards (“If you love George Bailey, get your money away from Potter”) – set to an ominous musical soundtrack.

The video is clever and Internet friendly, logging more than a quarter-million views on YouTube since it was posted last week. The movement has spurred a website that helps users find small, local banks, and a Facebook page that’s closing in on 5,000 fans.

The campaign is the latest example of using Web to promote change – but notably the centerpiece is a video that’s not all that far removed from a “SNL”-style digital short (see the recent “2012” movie trailer parody, juxtaposing the apocalyptic flick with the prospect of a Sarah Palin presidency and Glenn Beck vice presidency).

But can a four-minute video move people to move their money? And is George Bailey a good role model – at least when it comes to handling cash?

The Financial Service Roundtable, a trade group representing large financial institutions, not surprisingly, doesn’t think so. "It’s easy to demagogue the industry and paint institutions large, medium, and small, with broad brush strokes," a Roundtable spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times.

The reassuring message of Capra’s movie that we all matter and that living a good life counts for something in the end. Still, there are plenty of angry people seeking revenge on the Mr. Potters of the world.

But only time will tell if whether every time a mouse clicks, a big bank loses a customer.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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