The Great Depression - An analysis of "Grapes of Wrath" and " It's a Wonderful Life"
Following the relatively prosperous era nicknamed the "Roaring Twenties" came the Great Depression. Unemployment skyrocketed and good times were hard to be found. In the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" - we see the transformation from stability to utter chaos.
With World War I freshly over, there was joy and celebration to welcome American 'boys' coming back home. Huge technological improvements and scientific breakthroughs paved the way for larger, more stable and profitable financial markets. Fast and easy money was too be made by playing the booming stock market - many lay men took advantage of these opportunities without having a complete understanding of what exactly they were doing. This inevitably led to the crash that sent America and the world into the Great Depression.
In the movie - we see the first stages of the panic that spread throughout the country. People got scared and ran to the bank to take out their life-savings. What they did not understand was that no bank carries all its customers money at the same time. Profits are made off loans (which come from money kept in the bank by customers) with interest rates. This is what George Bailey tries to explain to the people of Bedford Falls, when they come to take their life-savings out of Baileys Building and Loans.
However, not everyone was satisfied with George Bailey's explanation. They much preferred to have hard cash on them, which led some to turn to Mr. Potter (the stereotypical evil character who represents all that is bad), who offered fifty cents for every dollar. This of course allowed Potter to make huge profits out of other peoples loss.
George's institution was unable to match Potter, not only because he believed it was unethical, but also because they were not a big and strong enough institution.
Realizing this, Potter tried numerous times during the course of the movie to shut down the Buildings and Loans or take it over - to no avail. It was his aim to capture a monopolistic market over Bedford Falls that would allow him to charge any rates he wanted and thereby ensure himself a sufficiently large profit. It would also mean the end of a free market in Bedford Falls. A likely byproduct of a monopoly is feudalism, which could have arisen, given half a chance. It was the Bailey bank that always stood in the way of this happening.
The movie also gives us a glimpse of what Bedford Falls could have been like, had George Bailey not decided to give up his education and travels around the world, and head his fathers bank. Potter would have gained total control of the Bedford Falls economy and done as he pleased, in order that he might make the most profit. The people would have been forced to go along with whatever he offered, as there would have been no alternative. In fact, the town itself is shown as renamed 'Pottersville' and the pathetic, small, near slum-like dwellings are incredibly and ridiculously high.
Thus, this movie not only depicts the 'Roaring Twenties' and the 'Great Depression', but also the differences between two economic systems - monopoly leading to feudalism (Pottersville - without George Bailey) and capitalism (Bedford Falls - with George Bailey).
The movie 'The Grapes of Wrath', is set at the same time and conditions of the American economy. However, here we see an in-depth view of just how badly the Depression made it for people and what lengths they would go to for a mere fifteen cents an hour wage. The opening scenes show us the return of Tom Joad, fresh out of prison and waiting to go home. However, home is no longer existant - his family has been forced to move off 'their' land by the big farm interests and banks.
Essentially, the Joad family is like many others. They did not own the land that they lived on, instead they were in a feudal sort of relationship with their landlords. A certain percent of the crops they grew on the land was given to them, the rest belonged to the feudal landlord. It was around this time that farmland was being used excessively and drained of nutrients therefore causing produce to be deficient.
To make matters worse, there was also a drought that only added to the woes of the farmers, along with mechanization of farm tools that could do the work of 10 men in less time and much more efficinetly. All this together lead to the great 'Dust Bowl' of the twenties and thirties, that eventually allowed for the landlords to evict their tenants. Some of whom were given no more than a few hours notice.
Thus, the feudal system of share-cropping was being replaced by a capitalist one of wage paying. As we saw in the movie, the people with tractors were being paid a much better wage than anything they could have hoped to earn off their land. Out of sheer desperation and the need to support their families, people helped evict their own neighbors. In this manner we see the transformation towards a capitalist society.
Out of work and with no place to call home, millions of families like the Joads headed west to California, lured by the promise of work (as advertised on flyers in the movie). What they did not seem to realize was that if an employer wanted 500 men, he would print up about 5000 flyers and distribute them all over. By the time they reached places like Oaklahoma, the demand for labor had been fulfilled. In essence, this time period in American economic history led to excessive availability of labor and a shortage of work.
Unlike "It's a Wonderful Life", in this movie we see the harder side of the depression -the tolls it took, the lives it took (Grandma and Grandpa Joad), and the horrible conditions it created for people. We see the capitalist opportunists, who can be equated with Mr. Potter, take full advantage of the hopelessness of the situation. They are able to get away with paying their labor less and less due the excess available. As basic economic theory states - an increased supply leads to a drop in price.
In conclusion, the Great Depression can be viewed as a turning point for many feudalistic relationships. It facilitated the transformation from feudalism to capitalism, as seen in both the movies. It was a time of shortages and futility, conditions were bad and for those who survived - it left a lasting scar on their personalities.
Post a Followup