As I overheard at the Community meeting in Sacramento, some niggas don’t have anything to do with their kids. Other niggas have too much to do with their kids. George Bailey was such a nigga. Other niggas don’t have anything to do with the urban renewal of a spontaneously, organically integrated neighborhood at the dawn of the midcentury civil rights push. Based on his habits of small-town banking and patronizing the off-white, George Bailey would not have been such a nigga.
Some men came back from the war with stories of hand-to-hand combat on Guadalcanal and the Navy torpedoing new supply lines through Japanese enemy fire to get fresh food and gear to the jarheads. My grandfather’s dental patient, for his part, came back with his story about how there they were, lying all together, whites, niggers, and iTalians. St. Jean de Bréboeuf, pray for us, that we might be raised up in fullness of time with our customary full eye tally. Why, yes, I’ve been keeping an eye out (no, not like that) for an opportunity to drop that line on all y’all. Those of you who came here for Dubai Porta Potty were asking for worse, and page view stats tell me you’ve found it.
But what the hell is an Italian? Garibaldi would be a Frenchman today. It didn’t matter so much back then, since he was able to do the nationalistic revolutionary shit and militarily naturalize himself as an Italian. 1945-1871=he did that around the time Ma and Pa Martini started doing each other. Hmm. Real old country there. Dude had just about shown up for his lifetime of wine o’clock food service shifts when the treasonous subversives with all the big ideas finally got around to clawing all the good stuff around Rome back from the Vatican and giving him his nationality, allowing him to forsake it in the New World as a racial subaltern to a banker with a black household maid and a case of acute bipolar disorder.
Sure, Frank Capra didn’t do the Community that much of a solid by so tritely subordinating it to High Whitey in his hometown-ass utopia. What really doesn’t make sense, though, is his incorporation of a meek token Italian as the next thing to a throwaway character. This makes less and less sense on the part of an Italian-American film director the more I think about it. I’m Jewish enough to catch the downsides of Jewish identity and for a fair bit of the low-to-middling Ashkenazi worldview to have rubbed off on me. If I were directing a film about a town run by dueling highbrow WASP supremacists duking it out over whether their relationship to the little people was to be one of overly self-esteeming soft paternalistic condescension or eternal robbery and lecturing in the early Carnegie tradition, I wouldn’t try to make Jews look good by casting Pot-o-Shit Friend as the town Jew. Capra was too earnest to try to make his own people look bad, and he established from close to the outset that he considered Prohibition a bunch of backwards bullshit, that no meddlesome Protestant totalitarian was to take that cup of comfort away from a decent citizen again. It’s bizarre, then, to see him toss an Italian immigrant character with practically no agency into his story as a prop in the ongoing reification of George Bailey. There must not have been enough character development leftover from the Bailey medley and that fey, whinging, blindingly pasty white angel in the nightgown to spare some for the town wop.
Disturbingly, the off-white got some of their agency back only in Pottersville. There they were, socializing all together in that cheap gin joint, whites, niggers, and iTalians. Capra was probably dogwhistling to some really ugly elements by portraying a slum in which the town’s Dr. Strangelove robber baron allowed the races to mix so promiscuously on purely social calls. Nobody seemed to be looking down on that black guy at the piano for leading his little big band in music way the hell better than the buffalo girls bullshit and whatever the hell Heart-and-Soul-ass garbage that Bailey brat was banging out on the family piano. Piano Man wouldn’t have been able to imagine anyone blame foolish enough to order a white boy to serve a life sentence playing that funky music on demand if the white boy’s heart wasn’t in it.
Capra’s implication was that the cost of integration was violence and chaos. The white folk and the colored folk start socializing like they’re equals, and next thing you know, George and Clarence get their white asses bodily hurled out into the cold and the snow by a disreputably rough guido bartender for asking all the wrong questions. I’m still trying to figure out why that kind of thing doesn’t happen when I hang out with my Michigan in-laws or their friends and does happen when some Ed Hardy thug gets all up in my face like he’s gonna whip my ass right here right now on a bad part of Beach Boulevard.
So, yeah, the prejudice is definitely there. Frankie Boy laid it on good and thick. But I’m not telling anyone not to watch it because it’s prejudiced; I’m telling you not to watch it because it fucking sucks and has been watched more than enough already for something of its awesome suckage. There are, like, five or ten minutes of Wow Much heartwarmings Where kleenex Very cry, but to get to them you have to sit through the better part of an hour of shit that ought to make you barf. Surely there’s some SVU playing opposite that crap somewhere in America’s extended cable packages. Maybe even some Goren Eames & Deakins goodness.
Something else I have to wonder about Capra’s wop squad is why, since he tossed one in for Pottersville, it didn’t do anything about the old creep in the wheelchair being wheeled off with everyone’s deposit money. You know, old man Martini, the feller ain’t never had the fight in ‘im, but he’s always been a good guy, always woyked hawd and could point a guy to a good bottle of Chianti if he could use one, so, say, Potter, tell me, you know anything about the construction trades? Point is, Potter, that’s a nice batch of concrete mix we got goin’ over there, so it’d be a shame if something bad happened to it, sumpin like you’n’at gimp chair o’ yours. Despite what all else is wrong with it (a lot), this is one of the great banksploitative works of American cinema about life before the FDIC. Some dumbass let out a big brain fart during a deposit run and Scrooge McDuck rolled off with the entire envelope, wrecking the local economy until the banker with the mansion and the maid put all the poors on an impromptu austerity plan in the lobby and bailed them in to stop the bank run. It isn’t as different as it should be from international finance today, come to think of it. The tragic thing was that, since Sicily’s international embarrassments were already practicing their dark arts, they didn’t think to use them against a bad high honky who could use a good hard public-service shakedown by some Clausewitz in a trenchcoat.
I’m not the only thing making Italian-Americans look bad. I have nothing to do with the Knights of Columbus, no matter how much the Knights want to have to do with me. Italian-American civic life, to the extent that it’s explicitly construed thus, is a century-long campaign of devanzettification. It’s structural Uncle Tom as an official ethnic identity. Everyone is angling to be promoted to house slave in recognition of his service in whipping the recalcitrant field slaves. Ethnic identities can be millstones around the neck; ask me, a quasi-Jew. Snooki and the Situation (Snucchi i la Situazione?) are a civic improvement for being nothing worse than low-class drunks, in much the way that Kim Kardashian having someone rub coconut oil all over her bare ass for a photo shoot may help one stop thinking about who controls Fresno. Word on the street is that America’s Latinos, also known to Kirk Siegler as America’s Hispanics, are increasingly self-identifying as America’s Caucasians. The Kardashians are closer to actual Caucasians here, but we don’t need to think about that. The angle, of course, is that the Latino Hispanics and Hispanic Latinos don’t want to be thought of as wetbacks, or as uppity field hands like Cesar Chavez. Myself, I’m just hoping to be thought of as someone who should be notified when there’s fruit to be picked. Yes, cracker, you will be paying me for that. I’ll more likely be blamed for inflaming my country’s ethnic and racial problems by using unwoke language by people who never socialize with the nonwhite and keep redlining staff for their own neighborhoods, but whatever. I didn’t create my country’s class problem. I merely report on it; you decide. It ain’t me, lawd, it ain’t me.
It’s a terrible film.