Sunday, 22 May 2016


In the 14 May Guardian Review, Lionel Shriver wrote a piece titled 'On The Money', about our 'newfound' fascination with bankers as 'the perfect villains'. Coincidentally enough, Lionel Shriver also has a new novel coming out, which she described as 'an economic dystopia', and which she linked to a number of other fictional works arising out of the 2008 financial collapse. 'Bankers and their ilk have never had an easy time of it in drama', she says, claiming that the 'sole positive portrayal I could dig up of a cinematic character in the money business is Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey', then pointing out the tremendous banker-villain of Its A Wonderful Life, Mr. Potter, played by her namesake Lionel Barrymore. This would seem to contradict her original thesis, that a fascination with bankers as villains is somehow 'newfound', but no one at the Guardian seemed to care. It does however manage to lead her to other films that contradict her. Then she includes Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which begs another of her points, about the original film Wall Street's coming during a different period of banking perfidy. Which is a contradiction of a contradiction, or something like that; I stopped keeping track.

Inconsistencies aside, it was junk food for thought, but her mention of It's A Wonderful Life reminded me of something she's missed. A couple of things, actually. So I wrote a letter to the Review, which follows in my original version, before I cut it back on the unlikely chance the G might print it:

Had Lionel Shriver searched a little further back into Frank Capra's films she would have found another banker hero. In the aptly-titled American Madness (1932), Walter Huston plays Thomas Dickson, a prototype George Bailey who staves off a run on his bank after his protege is accused of stealing from it. He makes virtually the same appeal to reason and community over panic and greed that George makes in It's A Wonderful Life, in a scene framed and shot in much the same way, only moreso: the panic and greed seemed more frightening and real in 1932.

It might also be worth pointing out that banker villains have thrived in westerns since the early silents ('If you don't give me the deed to your ranch'). One of the the greatest is in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) where Henry Gatewood (played with pompous self-regard by Burton Churchill), who has robbed his own bank, constitutes a one-man argument for The New Deal's banking regulations, like Glass-Steagall, and for George Bailey's idea for coping with banking crisis; if anything, he's a more loathsome figure than Mr. Potter, and unlike Capra, John Ford saw no reason to give Gatewood any redemption at the end.


Anonymous said...

I'd argue this goes back to Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Much of the plot revolves around loans and what happens if you can't repay them.

Michael Carlson said...

There is that--though she was talking about institutionalised banking in an American context