Let's talk about movies and plastics. No, not The Graduate yet again, but instead the seasonal classic It's a Wonderful Life.
In case you somehow haven't seen it, in a pivotal scene, the character of George Bailey is visiting Mary, the woman who soon becomes his wife. The date isn't going well, though, and he storms out, only to return for a forgotten hat. Another of Mary's suitors, Sam Wainwright, at that point is on the phone with her and asks her to put George on the phone.
You can just take a moment to find the scene on YouTube — and the movie is streaming on Amazon Prime — but if you don't have time to watch, Sam asks George if he recalls when George told him about someone who was using soybeans to make plastics. He then notes his father's company is about to create a plastics manufacturing company, but in another town. George convinces him to invest in his hometown instead.
There are a lot more details involved in plastics and the movie plot, of course (and you can read more of my take from this week's Viewpoint column), but one key question I had is why were plastics highlighted in this movie from 1946 in a scene from the early 1930s?
Maybe part of the reason is that director Frank Capra studied chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. (He'd later refer to film as "a wondrous peel of limber plastic.")
But Jeffrey Meikle, a professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, has another take, writing that plastics actually plays an even bigger part in the story of It's a Wonderful Life, thanks to the money Sam Wainwright makes.
"At the end of the film it is [Sam] who rescues Bailey's collapsing bank — and the citizens who had put their trust in it," Meikle writes in his 1996 book American Plastic: A Cultural History. "Although Capra's sympathies lay with small-town life, the progress of the outside world as exemplified by the expanding plastic industry clearly stood for other positive values."